The historic footprint from nearly 75 years of pony rides at Griffith Park may be an obstacle as Los Angeles city officials turn to deciding what should replace the popular family attraction, shut down in a controversial decision last month.
Three physical elements at the pony ride site date back to 1947: the ticket kiosk, the covered waiting area, and the fenced pony path, all of which opened to the public in 1948. Documents show that those elements, used by the public for decades until the city permanently closed the pony rides on Dec. 21, 2022, are significant historical structures that contribute to the park’s status as a city historical and cultural monument.
“I don’t think they will be able to remove those historic buildings, structures and fencing,” said Gerry Hans, president of Friends of Griffith Park, a longstanding nonprofit that raises money and provides volunteers for park improvement projects.
The document establishing Griffith Park’s historic status specifically identifies the 1947 pony ride structures as a “Historically Sensitive Resource and Area.” The document states, “The original fenced path for the Pony Rides, its waiting canopy and ticket kiosk are all still present and unaltered.”
A sign is left on the historical ticket kiosk at the defunct Griffith Park Pony Rides in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. The city of Los Angeles closed the pony rides after 74 years. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The historical ticket kiosk at the defunct Griffith Park Pony Rides in Los Angeles is seen on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. The city closed the pony rides after 74 years. But some of the structures are listed as historical resources and may not be torn down to make way for another use. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The historical structures of the defunct Griffith Park Pony Rides in Los Angeles are seen on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. The city closed the pony rides after 74 years. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The pony ride structures are listed as historically sensitive resources along with Ranger House, 1938; Feliz Adobe, 1853; Greek Theatre, 1930; Hollywood Sign, 1923; Griffith Observatory, 1935; and Bee Rock Trail, 1903.
Working around the pony ride structures could be difficult if the city wants a new use at the historic site.
Public commenters offered a broad array of opinions at a virtual task force meeting on Dec. 15 of the city’s Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners, which focused on the city’s sudden push to close the pony rides and pursue new uses for the roughly four acres of land.
Many public commenters characterized animal-centered attractions as animal cruelty, and some animal rights advocates called it slavery and suggested the city offer the public alternative entertainment such as go-karts and bumper cars.
Some who called in preferred educational uses at the site, to teach children about animals and plants through exhibits. Others suggested a learning center, a place for martial arts training, a roller rink skating facility, a rock climbing wall or a dog park.
But many others, including some horse owners, disagreed with the decision by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department (RAP) to not renew the contract with concessioner Steven Weeks, who had operated the pony rides for the past six years.
“I’m very sad these pony rides could not continue,” said Terry Ismael, who phoned into the meeting. “Children learn through touch, smell and through a hands-on experience. No ‘painted on’ animal will help a child feel connected with an animal.”
Allegations by a small band of animal rights activists that the ponies did not have enough water or were being mistreated were not supported by official documents that outlined why the city shut down the pony rides. The city’s veterinarian had initially noted some deficiencies, but after a return inspection she found improvements had been made to her satisfaction and she did not find “gross violations related to the care or the treatments of the animals on exhibit.”
The city’s stated reason for the surprise closure was the lack of timely reporting on the deaths of four ponies, even though the contract did not require Weeks to inform the city of the deaths. The city’s equine veterinarian said the deaths of the four ponies were not due to neglect. Weeks said the ponies who died were in pasture corrals and were not being used for rides. They died from natural causes including medical complications and old age.
The Recreation and Parks Department (RAP) lost faith in Weeks over his late paperwork and decided not to renew his contract — yet the city had just renewed his contract, in June. The parks department cited his late and incomplete report on the ponies’ deaths.
Weeks said he offered to renegotiate his contract or to leave the business to another operator — but city officials turned him down, he said. The pony ride area, in the southeastern part of the 4,314-acre Griffith Park, is near the Los Feliz Boulevard exit off the 5 Freeway. It has been vacated, but the structures remain.
The Los Angeles Alliance For Animals applauded the decision as did other animal rights groups including In Defense of Animals. Representatives spoke at the Dec. 15 meeting, basically saying the use of the land should not include animals.
The shutdown of the popular pony rides led to a one-paragraph statement by RAP that read: “At the request of the City Council, the Department will undertake a community input process to re-imagine the recreational and educational activities offered at this location in Griffith Park to continue providing youth and families an affordable and enjoyable experience.”
After the December meeting, it was clear that the city, RAP and the commission had no idea what to offer the public in place of the iconic pony rides. “What is yet to be determined is what comes next,” said Jimmy Kim, RAP general manager.
Last year, Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman, whose district includes Griffith Park, reportedly asked for an investigation into allegations by animal rights groups aimed at the pony rides. In December she released a statement supporting the city’s decision to not renew the pony ride contract, and she hinted that the facility’s future would not include animal rides.
“Griffith Park is in need of affordable amenities that let families connect with nature, but we need to look into alternative models that are safe and healthy for both children and animals,” she stated. Raman did not respond to a request for an interview with this newspaper, and her staff instead provided her December statement.
Hans, the president of Friends of Griffith Park, said the pony rides cost $5 and the price had been kept low for years. He noted that it was an inexpensive way for many families to expose their children to riding ponies, which costs more than $75 at a private facility.
At the December meeting, park commissioner Tarafai Bayne said he was “very sensitive to the conversation about access to animals and young people’s development.” But he said Weeks should have been more transparent regarding the pony deaths.
Commissioner Nicole Chase said she and fellow commissioners, along with RAP staff, will continue to take input on how to “re-imagine the space.”
“We are not excluding anything. Will it be with ponies or without ponies? We don’t know,” Chase said.
Hans expects the city’s decision to be a long time in coming. “It should not preclude the possibility of having pony rides again,” he said on Tuesday, Jan. 3. He suggested the city find a pony ride vendor who operates with a “high level of care” that matches standards practiced by the film industry when working with animals on sets.
And Hans noted that any new use must contend with the historic structures at the site.
That obstacle may have been a surprise to some officials. The historic designation was not mentioned by RAP general manager Kim or RAP staff, or in public statements released by Los Angeles City Council members.
After his comments at the December meeting, Hans received an email from Stefanie Smith, superintendent of Griffith Park, who indicated he had brought up a good point.
On January 19, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission will discuss the historical structures at the pony rides, Hans said.
“The Department of Recreation and Parks needs to have a clear understanding whether it is OK to proceed with anything with these historical elements,” Hans said.
Though the Friends of Griffith Park’s board has not yet discussed the closure of the pony rides and possible new attractions, Hans said the group favors leaving the city’s largest park as natural as possible, and keeping commercial activities outside the park.
“We have talked a lot about keeping Griffith Park rustic, while keeping some of the history there. We need to protect the historic resources we have in the city,” Hans said.