By Bonnie Eslinger
The dirt and gravel corner of a parking lot off Sepulveda Boulevard may not have looked like much to most passersby, but for Eli and Brent Wagner it offered the possibility of becoming a play area for their daughter and a gathering place for neighborhood families.
The thirtysomething couple, married in 2012, bought their home in North Kenwood just a few years ago and welcomed their first child, a daughter, into the world in April.
“So we’re walking around the neighborhood and we realize that there are no parks in the immediate area that we’ll be able to take her to,” Eli Wagner said. “That’s when we began looking for a place in our neighborhood where we could put up a small play structure that the community could benefit from, including us.”
Westchester has a large city park with play areas, picnic tables and a gymnasium off West Manchester Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, but the Wagners wanted something closer to home — something similar to the smaller-scale neighborhood parks they’d seen in Playa Vista and El Segundo.
When the couple found the 3,300-square-foot space facing West 80th Place behind the Westchester Family YMCA, they got their hopes up.
The Wagners contacted John Loussararian, the Westchester Y’s executive director, about the possibility of turning the space into a pocket park and he didn’t let them down. Creating a neighborhood space was in keeping with the YMCA’s mission of encouraging family and community.
A local Boy Scout, David Lewins, had already began making improvements to the corner patch of land as part of his Eagle Scout project. He leveled off the area and added gravel, with native plant landscaping the next part of the plan, Loussararian said.
“The core of what David and the Wagners are striving to create is a space that brings people together to strengthen already established relationships and to establish new friendships. Furthermore, we know that when families engage in activities together, they experience deepened emotional ties, increasing resiliency and trust of others,” Loussararian wrote in an email. “We believe this project accomplishes this in an unstructured way that welcomes the community to enjoy.”
Although such details as how to secure the park, make it disability accessible and protect the YMCA from liability still need to be worked out, the YMCA has given the Wagners the green light to start fundraising for a commercial-grade play structure and other possible improvements.
Eli Wagner said she’d be happy with a slide and a couple of swings, but the YMCA is also exploring options to see if something bigger can be built. Neighbors won’t have to be members of the YMCA to use the park, she stressed.
Loussararian has contacted a national organization that helps communities fund and build playgrounds, but securing nonprofit support could take time. So, for now, the modest park plan is moving forward independently, he said.
The effort got a big boost with an initial $5,000 donation from The Promenade at Howard Hughes.
The Wagners have also organized a fundraiser called “Sauce Angeles 2016,” a pasta sauce tasting and competition with beer, wine and pizza that’s modeled after an event Eli Wagner experienced while attending law school in the Bay Area. Restaurant chefs vying for top honors will provide the pasta toppings and attendees will be the judges, voting on the various characteristics of the sauces.
Tickets are $125, and to date $10,000 in event pre-sales has already been raised, said Brent Wagner, who works in real estate finance.
There’s still enough event space and unclaimed tickets to raise another $5,000, he said.
And while $30,000 is the “aspirational goal,” for the park, if the sauce-off sells out that would be enough to get a “bare bones minimum” project built, he said.
It was less than six months ago when the whole idea took root, said the couple of their first community-organizing project.
“This is a unique thing for us,” Eli Wagner said, the playful sound of her daughter Maya’s voice heard in the background during a telephone interview. “It really came out of a very organic need.”
The Sauce Angeles 2016 fundraiser starts at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at the YMCA Annex at 8020 Alverstone Ave., Westchester. To make a donation and attend the fundraiser, visit sauceoff.com.