L.A. Open Acres helps neighborhoods put vacant land to good use

Red and purple dots designating underutilized plots of land light up of a screen shot of the laopenacres.org map

Red and purple dots designating underutilized plots of land light up of a screen shot of the laopenacres.org map

By Elliot Stiller

Some 10 million people live in Los Angeles County, but there are still thousands of underutilized plots of land — even in increasingly dense Westside neighborhoods.

An interactive online map that was recently launched to identify empty lots, foreclosed properties and other land that’s essentially vacant, L.A. Open Acres aims to channel community interest into putting them to good use.

“If you put this data online and allow for community output, you have somewhere communities can meet, organize around and inform development interests: a window of what the community there cares about,” said Andrew Douglas, launch coordinator for the project.

Laopenacres.org identifies vacant land in red if publicly owned and in purple if privately owned. Users can click on a parcel to see a picture of the lot and learn how big it is and who owns it. Plots of land highlighted with a pink border are “being organized” around by residents, who provide contact information through the site.

The web page offers additional resources such as advice for organizing, networking opportunities, legal support and funding options. Community activists often face overlapping bureaucracies, resistance from property owners and a steep learning curve in land use policy, so success in revitalizing blighted areas typically requires collaboration among stakeholders such as neighborhood councils, public officials, nonprofit agencies and even developers, Douglas explained.

“Everybody would benefit if something that’s been vacant becomes activated. It would become a new retail spot that the community needs and wants, and bring more people to the area to see the other businesses there,” said Sarah Auerswald, founding president of the Mar Vista Chamber of Commerce.

Lots are vacant for different reasons, said Heather Davis, a policy analyst for Community Health Councils, the nonprofit organization that launched L.A. Open Acres. Some are neglected by absentee owners, some are abandoned by people who defaulted on tax payments and some are publicly owned but simply unused.

The properties come in different forms: a partially used parking lot along Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, an uninhabited privately owned property along Vista del Mar in Playa del Rey; a strip of land alongside the 90 freeway in Del Rey.

“One of the roles of nonprofits is to push public agencies to change their policies around vacant lands in order to promote the highest and best use of these properties, which tend to be lingering in bureaucratic limbo,” said Community Health Councils Policy Director David Carson.

Putting such parcels to use requires a catalyst for action, as was the case several years back when residents teamed up with the Venice Canals Residents Association to convert a rundown lot into the Monarch Manor butterfly sanctuary east of 29th Avenue between Pacific Avenue and Strongs Drive.

But the process doesn’t always go smoothly.

The Marina Peninsula Community Council worked with the city in 2008 to prevent a vacant plot of land along the Grand Canal from being sold to a developer. There were high hopes to turn the space into a pocket park, but lack of community consensus and other priorities have prevented that work from taking place, said council President Sandie West.

On the other hand, collaboration among residents and city government has put energy behind plans to renovate the former Fire Station 62 at 3632 Centinela Ave. in Mar Vista into a community center.

The effort began with the Mar Vista Community Council working with then-L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl to keep the building from being sold, said current council Chair Bill Koontz.

Councilman Mike Bonin, Rosendahl’s successor, earmarked $30,000 in the city’s 2014-15 budget process for repairs to the building. The money has so far gone to clean up the heavily vandalized building (including hazardous material remediation), repair broken windows and the building’s roof, and increase security by improving lighting and adding a fence, said Bonin spokesman David Graham-Caso.

“Councilmember Bonin is continuing to work to find money for the project, and the next phase will be finding funding for the building’s rehabilitation. In the long-term, Councilmember Bonin would like to see the site used as a neighborhood hub, where people can get access to city services and hold community meetings,” Graham-Caso said.

Koontz said L.A. Open Acres could be a helpful organizing tool for this and similar projects involving the neighborhood council.

“The interface would take a lot of the burden off us and put it onto the servers. Instead of us having to be the middleman, it would be right there — an aggregator of information,” Koontz said.

Laopenacres.org was developed through a partnership with 596 Acres, which builds online organizing platforms, and C-Lab, which focuses on techniques for communication about urban environments. Community Heath Councils was funded by the LA2050 initiative, which supports projects that have the potential to improve the city.

Community Health Councils is looking to partner with Los Angeles Trade Tech College to give stewardship of the site to architecture professor Marcela Oliva.

Oliva had a leadership role in a sustainable buildings program for the Los Angeles Community College District that involved students in virtual-world planning of campus construction and renovations over eight years.

She hopes to follow a similar process, which she describes as “SimCity for real,” with L.A. Open Acres.

“What’s most exciting to me about L.A. Open Acres is the stuff that I haven’t even thought about that people are going to come up with. We don’t even know what all the possibilities are,” Douglas said.