Photo by Antonio Mejias-Rentas.

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What was once seen as a thorny conflict between USC and some Boyle Heights residents has resulted in an agreement that is expected to bring over a million dollars worth of much needed improvement to a beloved neighborhood park.

“It’s a great victory for the community,” said José Huizar after a public ceremony on Jan. 31 where he accepted, on behalf of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, a $1.1 million donation earmarked for walking pathways, new lighting and exercise equipment for Hazard Park.

“For the longest time there’s been tension” with nearby residents, said Huizar, over USC’s planned expansion of its health campus adjacent to Hazard Park.

Watch an interview with Councilman Jose Huizar

That tension came to a boil in late 2013 when USC unveiled its plan to build an expansion of Norfolk Street through the park, a plan that would have demolished its popular handball courts.

“We couldn’t understand why they needed to come through the park when they owned everything around it,” said Raymond Ríos, president of the Hazard Park Preservation Committee, formed by former and current area residents opposed to the USC plan.

Ríos, who lives in Hillside Village in El Sereno but lived for decades about a block from the park, on Ricardo Street, said that the councilman’s office helped negotiate through the tension and brought both sides together.

“For many years, this community was on the East side of Soto, USC was on the West side, and there was no interaction,” said Ríos, who recalled spending a good part of his youth at Hazard Park.

In response to the community uproar, USC withdrew its original plans for Norfolk and opted to build the expansion through some of the land it owns north of the park.

“We did outreach meetings for six months last year, and time and time again one thing came out,” said former state senator Martha Escutia, vice president of USC Government Relations. “The community indicated they did not have a place to go for a jog and do some kind of exercise.”

Escutia attended the ceremony at Hazard Park where she handed over a giant check for a million dollars to Huizar and representatives from Recreation and Park and from the L.A. Parks Foundation, which will administer the funds.

Nearby residents attended the event, held on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the park’s outdoor basketball courts. There were jumpers and art activities for the children and information on health and nutrition for the adults.

Judith Kieffer, the foundation’s executive director, said the $1.1 million would fund a new toddler playground, improved walking paths with three new outdoor exercise stations plus improvements to current facilities like the indoor and outdoor basketball courts and indoor renovations to bring the restrooms up to compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Included in that sum are $100,000 destined for youth sports programs at Hazard Park, with another $100,000 set apart for traffic mitigation issues that may arise from USC construction.

Besides the Norfolk extension, the USC Health Sciences Campus expansion plan includes the construction of a four-story, 157-unit housing facility for students and a 200-room hotel with extended-stay suites for families visiting patients at the Keck Medical Center.

Kieffer said the Hazard Park project is currently going through the bidding process and that the first part of a phased construction may begin in March, with the expectation that all improvements be in place before the end of the year.

Kieffer explained that the park walkways are expected to get as close as possible to Soto Street as scheduled city repairs on that heavily transited thoroughfare will allow. This may help improve access to the park from Ramona Gardens, an issue often raised by residents of that housing community just East of Hazard Park.

USC’s Escutia said that improvements to the park are meant to both beautify the area as well as help improve the overall health of its surrounding communities, by providing access to free and safe exercise areas. And she said she expected that the institution’s commitment to that end would go beyond the $1.1 million.

“Im hoping there might be opportunities to do something more long term,” she said. “I don’t believe in transactions, I believe in building relationships of long-term duration.”

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