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What’s hiding in plain sight at Magic Johnson Park? Maybe a solution to our water problem

It has neither the pomp of the Oscars nor the fanaticism of the playoffs, but California’s annual measurement of the snowpack in the Sierra is the sort of spring rite that brings with it intense expectation and dashed hopes. Certainly, that was the case in early March, when the state’s Department of Water Resources reported that the water content of the overall snowpack was only 61% of average.

Translation: It’s not only going to be a really dry year, but we also may be in the middle of a decades-long “megadrought.” In Northern California, sobering aerial photographs show Lake Oroville at 42% of its capacity.

Subtext: We need to be a lot smarter about capturing the rain we do get, much of which is flushed out to sea in chutes of concrete.

It’s really a story of design — about the ways water is designed to travel along the surfaces of our city, and how we can begin to tweak those surfaces so that we can hold on to that water rather than simply let it course through. And in this very Los Angeles story, there is one piece of infrastructure that tends to dominate the debate: our behemoth, 51-mile Los Angeles River, for which county supervisors are in the midst of producing a new master plan.

But L.A. is finding other ways to capture and to store water. And in some cases, it is run-of-the-mill urban infrastructure that plays the starring role. Your neighborhood park? It might just be doing double duty as critical aquifer.

A combination of strategic landscape design and water engineering is transforming neighborhood recreational areas into sites where water is captured, cleaned and stored. That water can then be recycled and used to irrigate a park’s vegetation — making the park self-sustaining. Excess water also can be released back into the river system in far cleaner form. (Urban and suburban runoff is notoriously filthy with garbage, surface pollutants and all manner of bacteria.)

Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook is an important recreational area in South L.A. A redesign has made it smarter about water.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

All of this is being designed in ways that are barely visible — if visible at all.

“It’s taking infrastructure but making it an asset to the community,” says landscape architect Gary Lai, a principal at AHBE/MIG, a planning and design firm with offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “You can do the water conservation part and it would be good. But then putting in an amenity for a neighborhood that didn’t have it, that’s fantastic.”

Parks around Los Angeles have water storage systems tucked under ballfields and recreation centers. In Santa Monica, there’s a 200,000-gallon cistern beneath a public library. One of the most recent public projects to emerge in this arena is Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, an unincorporated community in South L.A., where Lai and the team at AHBE/MIG helped develop the design for an ongoing $83-million renovation.

A drone shot shows an overhead view of one of the lakes at Magic Johnson Park surrounded by newly planted terrain

Magic Johnson Park recently received an $83 million revamp that has not only made the park more drought resilient, but made it an important water capture site.

(Evan Mather / AHBE/MIG)

It’s a location with a fraught history. The park lies on the site of an oil storage facility — the former Athens Tank Farm — that was operated by Exxon Mobile until 1963. In the 1970s, a piece of the property was employed in a real estate project backed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was intended to help working-class Black families find a path to homeownership. Ujima Village, as the development was called, housed 600 people in one- to four-bedroom units that shared a playground, basketball courts and a community garden.

But by the 1990s, the development had fallen into disrepair and ownership was transferred to L.A. County. Tests at the time showed the land remained contaminated from the previous oil operations. In 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Exxon Mobile and L.A. County to clean up the site. Residents were relocated and the entire development was ultimately razed.

Years of environmental remediation followed before the water quality board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control gave the go-ahead to use the land that Ujima once sat on as parkland (although Exxon continues to monitor the area for methane and other contaminants). That area, now integrated into Magic Johnson Park, will now feature an event lawn, a fitness loop and a natural amphitheater.

If you think about what we do, it makes no sense. We import water from the Colorado River and then we dump it on the ground.

Dan Lafferty, L.A. County Department of Public Works

Visit the park today and you‘ll notice pleasing surface changes. There are new jogging paths, drought-tolerant native-plant gardens studded with sagebrush and sycamores, scenic overlooks and a handsome 20,000-square-foot community center designed by Paul Murdoch Architects with shimmering interior murals by L.A.-based artist Carla Jay Harris. The park’s two lakes, previously clogged with algae and sediment, are now a clear blue.

A view across a lake to a building with a tilted roofline.

Because water is used more efficiently at Magic Johnson Park, the excess that it sends to Compton Creek is far cleaner.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Largely out of sight, however, are landscape design and engineering moves that have transformed the way the park uses water.

Prior to the renovation, Magic Johnson Park used potable water to irrigate its gardens and grass lawns, of which there are no small number — the park checks in at a sizable 126 acres.

“If you think about what we do, it makes no sense,” says Dan Lafferty, the deputy director who oversees the water resources division at L.A. County’s Department of Public Works. “We import water from the Colorado River and then we dump it on the ground.”

With an eye toward conservation, the designers at AHBE/MIG, in collaboration with PACE Engineering and L.A.’s Public Works, looked for ways the park might employ runoff and captured rainwater instead.

They achieved this in five steps:




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