New Park Renovations Bring Sanctuary, Sustainability to Green Dot Schools

Magic Johnson Renovation 2

The Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park holds a special place in the hearts of students, educators and families from Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy and Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School. The park is more than just a green space, it’s a place of play, connectedness, and community.

When it is safe to return to school, Ánimo Watts and Ánimo Mae Jemison will have a new surprise in their backyard. Recently, MIG, Inc. and AHBE Landscape Architects finished the first phase of a decade-long renovation of the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park, which began in January of 2019. The $70 million renovation brings new outdoor green spaces; a redesigned play area; an updated half-mile walking path; a re-engineered lake with a stormwater management system; and a brand new 20,000-square-foot community center. The park spans 104 acres and is flanked by residential properties and three schools in the Willowbrook community, an unincorporated area in South Los Angeles.

An Extended Trail

Green Dot Public Schools’ Athletics Coordinator, Scott Levester, has been looking forward to the park’s renovation. “It’s absolutely beautiful what they’ve done so far,” Levester said. Before the shift to distance learning, he led a series of activities in the park, including softball, soccer, cheer, and basketball. His physical education (P.E.) students also used the walking path as a timed course. “When our students used the park, it was one of many interactions the community had with Green Dot students, and all of our students respected that relationship.

For Levester, this park is a monument for the community. “Having grown up near the area, and having gone to the park as a kid, I’m just proud,” Levester said. “There was a lot of thought and a lot of love put in this park. And I hope that love is returned from the community. It instills a sense of pride that everybody can use.”

A Community Hub

Evan Mather, the Director of Landscape Architecture for MIG Inc. and award-winning filmmaker, has worked on a series of projects in the Willowbrook community. And for the last seven years, he and his associates have collaborated to enrich this park.

“One thing that was missing in Willowbrook before this project was a real civic heart,” Mather said. His team of landscape architects worked to change that. “What drove the design of this project was putting a community center in this park, which would reframe Magic Johnson Park as the heart of Willowbrook,” Mather said.

The landscape architects also prioritized water sustainability with its massive lake redesign. Previously, the park used non-recycled water to fill the lake, which stressed water supplies amid drought-prone Southern California's climate. Now the park collects rain water from the community, recycles it through a local water treatment plant, and sends it into the lake. “That’s the major transformation. The water going into the ocean through the storm drain is now getting clean and filling the lake,” Mather said.

A Local Sanctuary

Mather has produced a series of films around design issues and landscape architecture. After the completion of the first phase of the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park renovations, he filmed “Sanctum,” a short film that captures the essence of the park, told from the perspective of Willowbrook community members.

The idea for the film came to him after experiencing the civil unrest and police protests across the United States in May 2020. He then thought about the park’s local sustainability which, for him, was a metaphorical rejuvenation. “Sanctum stemmed from the idea that parks can be a sanctuary,” Mather said. “Parks play a crucial role in healing. And this was an opportunity to express that.”

Mather and Levester agree that this renovation is a necessary improvement to the Willowbrook community. “This park can be a transformative experience in a challenging time. It’s a place for the heart of the community. It’s a place for people to come together,” Mather said.