WILLOWBROOK — The county Board of Supervisors Feb. 23 approved a master plan to transform a 104-acre park named for Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Magic Johnson.
As envisioned, the park — once the site of the Athens petroleum tank farm — will include an aquatic center and several other water-themed elements such as a reflective pool, boating area and fishing docks, along with soccer and football fields, a gymnasium and a skate park.
The project could cost up to $135 million over 18 years, according to a preliminary estimate offered by regional planners.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said two years of work had already been done to prepare, though construction is not expected to begin until June 2018.
The current park is largely open space around two fishing lakes, with picnic and play areas.
“Our notion is to reimagine and transform the Magic Johnson Park, which sits in the heart of the Willowbrook community,” Ridley-Thomas said.
The first of six phases will include “some of the most catalytic aspects of the plan,” including a splash pad, outdoor amphitheater, community events center, wedding pavilion and multi-purpose trail, Ridley-Thomas said.
But that first phase will not include a hotly debated equestrian center, proposed to board up to 85 horses and offer another 20 for rental.
Dozens of community advocates and residents, many in cowboy hats, pleaded for horses to be allowed in the park, saying the large animals can teach children independence and be especially therapeutic for troubled kids.
“We live in an environment where we glamorize dope dealing and gang banging,” Justin Turman said, telling the board that riding made a dramatic difference in his life. “I want people to experience what I experience every time I get on a horse. And that’s freedom.”
Turman said one thing he had noticed about “all the people who are against the equestrian center is that they are elderly,” drawing boos from the crowd. “No disrespect,” he added.
One elementary school age girl told the board that horses help her calm down and think more clearly.
“There’s a choice between the right thing and doing stuff that’s easy,” the young girl said, adding that she hoped the board would “do the right thing.”
Many of those who opposed the equestrian center accused its supporters of not living in the area.
“There’s a lot of people here. They don’t live there. We do,” said one woman who said she had lived in the neighborhood for 53 years.
“I don’t want to wake up smelling horse [excrement] and flies,” Juanita Thompson, a 45-year resident of the area, told the board. “I love horses, but I don’t want them next door to me.”
Some seniors said they’d rather have an indoor and outdoor swimming pool.
“It’s not a matter of aquatic center versus equestrian center,” Ridley-Thomas said, adding that he believed everyone in attendance was interested in upgrading the park.
A few residents raised concerns about contamination on the site.
One mother of a child with multiple sclerosis said she shouldn’t have to drive to Jesse Owens Park, five miles away, to let her kid play, but she was worried about potential harm.
“The toxicity. … I’m very concerned about that,” she told the board.
A Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board official said that lead and arsenic contamination had been cleaned up and surface soil had been replaced.
“Like virtually every tank farm in Los Angeles County there were leaks and spills that contaminated the soil … and, in many cases, the groundwater beneath these tanks,” Samuel Unger, the water board’s executive officer, said.
Those “relatively small areas” have been remediated and certified clean to state standards for residential areas, Unger told the board.
ExxonMobil Oil Corp. and its predecessors operated the tank farm from the 1920s to 1965, when it was shut down and vacated. When vapor from a hydrocarbon plume on the east side of the park threatened homes in the area, the oil company was ordered to handle the cleanup.
By 2015, the plume had been “virtually eliminated,” Unger told the board, citing testing by the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Remediation is ongoing in the central part of the park, where ExxonMobil plans to use horizontal vapor extraction, a less invasive technology.
Regional planners vowed not to build out any specific area of the site until both the water control board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control had given their sign off.
The board’s vote was unanimous.
“I look forward to seeing Mark Ridley-Thomas on the equestrian trail,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said, smiling.
Whether an equestrian trail is included in a future phase remains unsettled.