El Dorado Park East

Claudine Burnett

In my March 24 article about El Dorado Park, I discussed how the park came to be. But progress wasn’t over. 1965 saw the start of development of El Dorado Park East, its design created to provide an “outdoors” atmosphere for those who did not have time to visit the mountains as often as they would like.

It was paid for partly with state bond funds. On July 27, 1965, work began on a 75-acre flat tract that, for almost 100 years, had been used as a bean and alfalfa field. Now it was being transformed by adding a rolling terrain of hills and valleys, streams, meadows, lakes and more to create the El Dorado Nature Center, at a cost of $180,701 ($1.7 million in 2023).

In addition, a nature headquarters, with small museum and exhibits would be built as well as self-guiding nature trails. It was expected to take at least five years or more to “dress up” nature the way the Parks and Recreation Department wanted, but animals soon found their way to the new habitat. Rabbits, fox and opossums appeared, and all were put through veterinary checkups once things got underway. The Nature Center would open on May 17, 1969.

Also in 1965, city officials stated that a series of contracts for developing other El Dorado Park sections were planned. These would be awarded over a period of several years, eventually totaling some $3.5 million ($33 million in 2023). Most of the cost would be paid from a 10-cent tax levy (which would continue through 1972) authorized by voters in 1964 for park improvements, as well as from the state park fund and $573,294 ($5.4 million in 2023) from Los Angeles County.

In October 1966, the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation authorized additional money, approving a $100,000 ($922,000 in 2023) matching grant toward beautification and development of El Dorado Park. Since the park would have a regional importance, other grants from national, state and county governments furthered development over the years.

Area Il is north of Spring Street and east of the river, south of Wardlow Road and contained 165.8 acres. Work on this section of the park began in September 1966 and opened to the public on Feb. 6, 1971. It included 7.6 acres of lakes, an archery range (the site of the 1984 Olympic competition), overnight camping facilities, group picnic areas and bicycle and walking trails.

Area Ill is north of Wardlow Road and has a total of 203.6 acres. Work started on this area in 1971 and opened in July 1974.

Discussion as to how to develop El Dorado Park continued. In the summer of 1995, fifth district Councilmember Les Robbins held a neighborhood meeting to discuss development in the park. The plans included a miniature train ride and an adult sport complex. Some residents were horrified to learn that the sports complex would fence off 40 acres of Area 3, level Glider Hill and sell alcohol.

Local resident Ann Cantrell, wrote a letter opposing this plan to the Press-Telegram. Several people responded, many with their own concerns – loss of habitat for the many birds in this area of the park, lights and noise from the games, and more. As a result, Save the Park was formed, with Ann Cantrell as president, Billie Sheaffer as treasurer and Joy Ridenor (the only one with a computer) as secretary. They were joined by many more members, each contributing time, money and talents to the effort.

Columnist Tom Hennessy championed the cause and even appeared in a fund-raising play at the Community Playhouse. TV celebrity, Huell Howser also attended rallies in El Dorado Park.

An environmental attorney, Jean Martin, volunteered to take on the cause pro bono, along with Melanie Muckle. The lawsuit was based on the inadequacies of the 5-year-old Environmental Impact Report, which had been done for another project and did not address the many issues this project would add. The two attorneys said they would not charge for their time, but Save the Park would have to pay for any costs involved with the filing, records, etc.

Sheaffer immediately set about organizing fund raisers. The group held a dinner, picnic in the park, a play at the LB Playhouse, and Las Vegas Night, all with donated raffle prizes. The organization also received donations for yard signs, T- shirts and sweat shirts.

In all over $25,000 ($49,000 in 2023) was raised, which also paid for a biological consultant from San Francisco. The earlier Environmental Impact Report (EIR) stated the birds could just go somewhere else. The biologist searched the area for a suitable location for birds and wildlife displaced by the sports complex. She wrote a report stating there was no place them to go within 10 miles of the park.

Save the Park also discovered the city had received federal water funds in order to irrigate El Dorado Regional Park which prohibited the building of any permanent structure in the park. One member alerted the Secretary of the Interior, whose letter forced the change of plans from a concrete gym to a “Tensile structure,” described as a tent.

In addition to the group’s CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuit, they wanted to get an ordinance on the ballot which would prohibit the sale or lease of any public parkland in perpetuity. This was in the days before e-mail and other social media and all contacts had to be in person.

Although they collected over 22,000 signatures on the petition, time ran out before they were unable to collect the necessary 25,000 signatures to put the proposed park ordinance on the ballot. However, some of what Save the Park proposed is now included in the Parks in Perpetuity ordinance passed by the council several years later.

Despite failing to get an ordinance on the ballot, the group rejoiced when the court ruled in their favor in 1996 and ordered the city to prepare an adequate EIR (Environmental Impact Report). The city threatened to appeal the decision, which meant Save the Park would have to fight the battle all over again in court.

Attorneys Martin and Muckle needed paying jobs and said they could no long work pro bono. The group agreed to accept the city’s settlement of $80,000 ($152,000 in 2023), for failure to produce an adequate Environmental Impact Report. The group used the money to pay Martin and Muckle for their time.

The process for a new EIR for the sports complex required a public meeting, in which many neighbors showed up to protest the project – again. This time, the city’s environmental officer told the council that the sports park could not be built in El Dorado Park and another location must be found.

Shortly after, City Manager James Hankla suggested the property at Spring and Orange (now Willow Springs Park) as the possible location for the sport complex. When the group learned that this plan included leveling the highest point in Long Beach and destroying the spring and wetlands, Save the Park opposed this location, also.

In the meantime the developer, Rec Tech, went bankrupt and Councilmember James Johnson was able to save the property at Spring and Orange for Willow Springs Park. To stem drug dealing and violence, the city was able to get the park fenced and an entry fee charged.

Today El Dorado Park East includes group picnic areas, four lakes, a Frontier Village with train rides and other attractions, a fire station, and bicycling and walking trails. There is also an area known as “Glider Hill,” created by the excavation of the lakes. It was intended to be an amphitheater overlooking a lake, but was never built, because of Save the Park.

Other plans which were eventually put aside included a 200-horse equestrian center and tent and recreational vehicle campground with 300 sites. The equestrian trails were to join the county’s equestrian trail system, making it possible to ride from Long Beach to Griffith Park. Though plans for an equestrian center and horse trails were panned, a dog park was permitted, but far away from the duck pond!

Ann Cantrell (who provided information for this article) is one of the few surviving affiliates of Save the Park and is a member of the El Dorado East Task Force, which was able to stop the use of Roundup and other pesticides in public parks. In 2022 she was among those protesting filming activities in El Dorado Park East during nesting season. Approaching, 90, Ann (known as Gadfly) continues to fight for what she believes is right.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.


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