By Michael J. ARVIZU
Despite passionate pleas by Sunland-Tujunga residents and individuals who identified themselves as having familial connections to the World War II Japanese concentration camp, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission unanimously recommended against declaring the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga a historical monument.
The decision by the five-member commission came almost two months after the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a motion – authored by Councilman Richard Alarcón – that would send the case to the city’s Office of Historic Resources, which houses the Cultural Heritage Commission, for a recommendation.
Beginning in 1933, the area that is now occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course was used as a work camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal pubic works program established in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression. According to Cultural Heritage Commission documents, the work camp existed until 1941 when the site transitioned into a temporary internment camp for American citizens of Japanese descent shortly after the bombings on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire. The 11-building “Tuna Canyon Detention Station, Immigration, and Naturalization Service,” as it was known, served as one of two Los Angeles-area entry points for hundreds of local Japanese-Americans who were later transported to other sites, sometimes without their families.
The camp closed in 1946 and its buildings were demolished when the Verdugo Hills Golf Course was constructed in 1960.
Currently, the site is being considered by Encino-based Snowball West Investments LP as a location on which to build 224 single-family homes that would occupy 28 acres, leaving approximately 32 acres preserved for open space.
Supporters argue that the area is historically significant and represents a dark chapter in the history of the United States. As such, they say, it is worthy of preservation. Stakeholders also wish to preserve the open space and ecological resource provided by the golf course, including trees, grasses, and natural rock formations.
The commission’s decision is based on the site’s lack of surviving structures that were once part of the detention camp and the changes made to the original landscape and topography when the golf course was built.
“I’m looking at these pictures. These pictures are what I want to see. These pictures are what I want to remember. These pictures are what are important for our young people to see,” said Cultural Heritage Commissioner Oz Scott, referring to the black and white photographs that depict the site in its original state. “The golf course doesn’t do anything for me. That’s not what’s interesting to me.”
Supporters fear that once the site is developed, no area will be set aside to commemorate the events that took place there 50 years ago.
“From what we can tell from the maps in the draft, there is no indication of any recognition at this site,” said Cindy Cleghorn, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Chamber of Commerce. “There’s nothing set aside, so there has no been no way for us to understand what was the intent.”
The Cultural Heritage Commission also takes issue with the lack of communication between the two sides in order come to an agreement on what should ultimately be built on the site.
“We’d be happy to come and show you the plans,” said Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West Investments. “It’s more precise now exactly what’s being proposed.”
According to Gaines, the 2009 draft environmental impact report clearly outlines what actions his client will take to sufficiently recognize the site as a former detention camp.
“The maps that we received in the draft environmental impact report that he spoke about, there is nothing that indicated that it was their inclination to actually put something there,” said La Crescenta resident and Save the Verdugo Hills Golf Course committee member Karen Keehne Zimmerman.
Gaines added that his office has been working “overtime to be more specific as to exactly where those kinds of things would happen and how they would best happen. We’re happy to go through those details with the council, with the community or anyone.”
Cleghorn disagreed with Gaines’ statement, adding that nothing has been approved to be built on the site and no zoning changes have taken place, and any plans outlining how the area will be preserved are premature.
“Why would you want to have a negotiation? Then we’re saying to them we approve of your development,” Cleghorn said. “There’s no approval for the development. You’ve got a community that’s not going to make deals to try to get zone changes.”
Since the motion to recommend the site for historical monument status was initiated by the Los Angeles City Council, the Cultural Heritage Commission’s recommendation will now go back to the city council for consideration.
“The council member will be leading that discussion, as a representative of the district and will give his compelling arguments,” said Alarcón staff member Gerald Gubatran.