The Battle over Cemetery Memorial Park
Prior to the issue returning to the City Council for a vote, the Parks and
Recreation Commission will be holding another discussion, this one focused
on the "scaled-down" alternative(s). For the agenda and staff report for
that June 17 meeting, go
and click on Agenda Item Four.
It is one of the most beautiful spots in Ventura. It has a rich history. It
is much beloved. And it is the topic of emotional debate.
Cemetery Memorial Park is the site of 3,000 graves, buried in several
adjacent cemeteries dating back at least to 1862. By the Thirties, the
cemeteries were no long active. Neglect and vandalism prompted the Planning
Commission to begin discussions for converting the cemetery into a park.
That plan was ultimately adopted in the early Sixties. Remaining headstones
were removed and a "parklike" setting was installed.
A movement spearheaded by Steve Schleder began five years ago to reverse
that decision. He's been a persistent and passionate critic, arguing that
Ventura not only dishonored those buried on the seven acre site, but
violated the law. A Grand Jury investigation failed to confirm his legal
arguments, but they did recommend the City do a better job of respecting the
nature of the site.
In the years since, the City Council has heard from a shifting chorus of
voices on what should -- or should not -- be done. At times, the passion and
numbers have favored those demanding the City do more to honor the historic
graves -- if not to fully restore the Cemetery, at least to put a name above
each of the graves. Lately, the more numerous voices have been arguing that
the City should essentially leave the site alone.
What brought the debate front and center again was a plan developed over the
past two years to implement the Council's direction to do a better job of
balancing the many aspects of the park -- as an historic site, as a cemetery
and as a public park. Elaborate public input led to an ambitious -- and
controversial -- plan. With a long-term price tag of $4 million, it made an
easy target for neighbors and park users to lampoon City government for
contemplating changes that no one wants at a cost that no one can afford.
The critics have a point -- up to a point. Instead of working from a
realistic budget, the firm hired to assist in park planning designed a
master plan that assumed that over the next two decades, private fundraising
and park grant funding could pay for a park make-over. Some objected to
removal of the parking lot; others to the placing of individual grave
markers over all the remains; and others just griped about the whole package
as an absurd waste of money in a down economy. As an alternative, staff
placed before the City Council a much scaled-down version more in keeping
with the original intent to address deferred maintenance and install some
kind of appropriate memorial monument.
But the volunteer citizens who serve on our Parks and Recreation Commission,
who held a series of meetings leading up to their approval of the plan,
represent a different community perspective. They saw the plan as a
visionary way of making the park truly a majestic destination that
celebrated the legacy of Ventura's history, honored the departed and yet
made the park a welcoming place for neighbors and visitors. They realized
that it would take decades for that vision to unfold, but obviously the site
has undergone a great many changes already in its 150 year history. Right
now, the park is primarily used neighborhood strollers and dog owners, most
of whom ignore the ban on unleashed dogs in the park. The Commission
anticipated the park becoming a more unique and appealing setting to
understand and appreciate our city's unique history and beauty.
After hearing from public speakers, the City Council ran out of time to
adequately discuss and resolve the competing views. The topic is due to come
back to the City Council -- but first the Parks and Recreation Commission
will review again their recommendation -- and the scaled-down alternative.