By John Earl
Surf City Voice
A handful of residents sat in the audience section of the city council auditorium in the early evening of May 11. The room was dimly lit and the ambiance was boring, even a bit depressing.
Each person in the tiny group waited quietly for a turn to tell the Community Services Commission to reconfirm the name—Triangle Park—given 99 years ago to a 1.1 acre triangular-shaped patch of parkland that encloses the historic Main Street Library on the northern end of downtown Huntington Beach.
Sitting quietly among them was Richardson Gray, a 56-year-old downtown resident and retired Boston real estate developer turned Gothic novelist. He lives alone in a second-story condo that overlooks the park.
Gray is thin and stands at average height with shoulder-length grey hair. He dresses plainly and there is nothing obviously Goth-like about him, but he calls himself a “Goth of the Electric Chair variety,” referring to the Main Street clothing store that caters to a younger clientele more commonly associated with the Goth lifestyle.
“My life is like a Goth romance novel,” he confides, describing his novel in progress as “Sid and Nancy with a happy ending.” Even his car license plate reads GOTHS.
Gray goes to the podium to speak, carrying a stack of papers under his arm. It’s not the draft of his novel but a petition he wrote signed by 7,000 downtown residents. Gray gathered most of the signatures himself two years earlier.
The petition says nothing about naming the park, but calls upon the city to save the library from a grandiose plan to replace it with a large tourist center. But Gray tells the commission that “I am convinced that all these 7,000 people would want Triangle Park to keep its historic name.”
Gray reminds the commission that 7,000 approximates the number of residents living in the downtown area and that it took about 14,000 votes to elect someone to the city council in the last election.
“In my opinion,” he concludes, “voter sentiment to preserve Triangle Park is overwhelming. Triangle Park, so named in 1912, doesn’t need a new name.”
The name, however, seems to have fallen out of use after the library was built in 1951. Until recently, the park area was commonly referred to as the Main Street Library, although its original name has never been officially changed.
After a short discussion, the commission unanimously voted to recommend to the city council to keep the current name—an important symbolic victory for local residents who value the few bricks of the downtown’s history that haven’t been replaced by redevelopment with restaurant-bars and mall boutiques.
Gray’s initial efforts to save the park evolved into much larger and well organized efforts to stop the developer-controlled council from super-sizing downtown’s residential and commercial density and to deal with neighborhood disturbances caused by the growing overabundance of bars and wandering drunks.
Gray’s activism, like his writing, is more personal than ideological. “My work to Preserve Triangle Park absolutely is a self interested NIMBY issue,” he explains. “I am trying to keep my home as a nice place to live for the rest of my life.”
But Gray understands the value of historical preservation for its own sake as well as anyone. While living in a Victorian neighborhood in Boston’s south side for seven years he worked for a real estate firm that did historical renovations. After that he moved to North Carolina and worked for three years with a real estate endowment firm.
Four years ago Gray decided to retire in Huntington Beach because of his life-long love of surfing and to write his novel.
He bought his $525,000 condo because of its view of Triangle Park—which he assumes accounts for about one-fifth of its purchase value. He also believes that his dream home has lost 20 percent of of that value due to the housing market crash, and possibly more from the effect of the city’s “threats” of developing a “major tourist attraction” on the park.
As a self-professed NIMBY, Gray was understandably outraged when he saw the specs for the new Downtown Specific Plan (DTSP) that went public in late 2008.
It’s proposed revisions would result in more than 1.3 million additional square feet of commercial development in an area that technically covers 336 acres, but much of which would be in the Main Street area. Not to mention Pacific City a few blocks to the south which would bring 512 condos and a 165 room hotel/spa resort, according to previously approved plans.
The original DTSP revision plan would have allowed the library to be replaced by a 30,000 square foot cultural arts center—a tourist attraction that would draw between 300,000 – 400,00 visitors a year and provide a counter “anchor” to the pier located at the other end of Main Street on Pacific Coast Highway.
“I went nuts,” Gray recalls, and within a week he was gathering signatures for his petition. But Gray does not shut the door completely on change.
“If the library does not survive long term,” he wrote in an e-mail blast, “I think that most residents are open to another neighborhood-friendly, modestly-sized cultural center to take its place. But I do not think most residents want a major tourist attraction and parking garage in the middle of our established residential neighborhood.”
Standing perfectly still on a sidewalk Gray looks like a mime artist, usually holding his notebook-paper-sized sign that says “Save Triangle Park & Main St. Library: Sign Here” or some other sign expressing support for a related cause.
He never speaks to passers-by until he is spoken to. But given the opportunity to explain his cause it can be difficult for his audiences to get a word in edgewise. When going house to house he is no less determined, as this writer discovered when he visited my home.
In less than a month Gray had gathered almost 250 signatures on his own, prompting the Independent to report on his fledgeling crusade in January, 2009.
He told the paper, aptly enough, that he was involved in a “David and Goliath battle.” City officials reacted by claiming that nothing specific was planned, that the library project idea would be fully vetted in public hearings and that Gray’s concerns were premature.
But Gray knew that the conceptual dreams of city planners tend to become runaway trains. So naturally he continued to sound the alarm. Eventually he walked to every home in the downtown area, personally gathering over 5,300 signatures to save Triangle Park. Another 1,700 signatures were collected by other local residents who jumped on his bandwagon.
One of those residents was Kim Kramer, who also lives across the street from Triangle Park but on its other side. Together, they revived the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents’ Association, a citizens group that had been active in the 90s in response to Fourth of July inspired riots on downtown streets. They gathered with several other activists, formed a steering committee and began talking to city officials with a sense of urgency.
“We had this terrible threat that the council was coming up with,” Gray recalls, adding that he wouldn’t have had the courage to meet with city leaders without the help of Kramer and others.
Gray signed up the group’s first official 587 members in the same way he gathered signatures to save the library, laying the foundation for a group that could become influential in future city elections. He also contributed $7,000 to help pay for a letter written by the group’s attorney to the city in opposition to the DTSP revisions and he gave another $5,000 toward fliers and mailers associated with the group’s political efforts, he says.
If Gray is hard working and generous with his time and money, he is also determinedly uninterested in—and perhaps incapable of handling—personal political power. His mild mannered ways were no match for Kramer’s top-down leadership style and domineering personality, so policy disagreements quickly developed between them.
Gray wanted to sue the city and investigate alleged conflict of interest by Steve Bone, the hotel developer and president of the city-funded Marketing and Business Bureau who was promoting the Cultural Center (Bone wanted to build an aquarium on a 50,000 square foot site).
But Kramer disagreed on both counts. Then Gray was booted from the steering committee. A few months after that Kramer registered HBDRA with the county recorder’s office under his business name, KSK Financial Group.
Despite the apparent betrayal, Gray shows no animosity toward Kramer. He lightly scolds him for not being more democratic and tolerant of other voices, and he was “annoyed” about the fictitious business name coup—it was a “momentary lapse” on his part—but he dismisses accusations of Kramer’s bullying of downtown business owners as “much ado about nothing” and praises him to the limit.
“I just think that Kim Kramer has done great things for our downtown neighborhoods and I want him to keep doing it,” he wrote in an e-mail message to other local activists. Gray says it’s hard for him to call Kramer an ally after their differences over the years, but that their goals are the same and they work parallel.
In Dec. 2009, the city council blessed the DTSP revisions, including the potential cultural arts center. A month later, in response to the complaints generated from Gray and HBDRA, the city downsized the cultural arts center to 24,660 square feet (still a 14,700 foot expansion) and wrote in a provision encouraging, but not requiring, preservation of the library. Underground parking and retail amenities, such as a gift shop and small cafe, were still part of the plan.
In September 2009 a new downtown residents group was formed, in part by former and current allies of Kramer who were displeased with his tactics and wanted to expand their reach to other downtown issues besides the library and park—something that both groups have long since done. The group named itself Huntington Beach Neighbors and today it is a registered non-profit with about 2,000 members.
HBN president Angela Rainsberger, like Kramer, has high praise for Gray’s contribution toward the formation of her own organization and to building public awareness of important downtown issues.
“He single-handily dedicated time and resources to researching and defending the [library] site against the threats of redevelopment.” If not for his efforts, she says, “citizens would have lost this community library to developers.”
But Gray’s fight to save the library and the rest of downtown from over development has not been won.
HBN filed a lawsuit in Feb. 2010 challenging the compliance of the city’s DTSP to environmental law. The court ruled in favor of the city on all counts, but HBN will probably appeal, informed sources say.
Gray, who contributed $23,000 to pay for HBN’s lawsuit, is not discouraged despite the city’s first round knock out. His time and money have been well spent, he says.
“I feel like they [city officials] deserved to be sued,” he says. They need to get the message that the city should take a “more friendly neighborhood approach” in its plans.
Gray is hopeful that the public involvement in downtown issues that he helped to build will pay off in the near future. “In another election cycle or two, we will have a resident friendly majority on our city council,” he predicts. And the city “will finally get serious about improving the downtown for residents.”