Why a Basketball Court Caused a Runyon Canyon Backlash

Runyon Canyon Basketball Court Screen Shot -H 2016
Courtesy of Instagram/neima.khaila

Pink Dolphin CEO Neima Khaila's basketball court was approved, then killed by the Runyon Canyon Defenders, which includes 1,000 members, many in the entertainment industry: "City officials listened and cancel[ed] the whole dirty deal. We are relieved that Runyon Canyon will not be further desecrated."

Roughly two years ago, Neima Khaila, 28, went running in Runyon Canyon with his business partner and childhood friend Cena Barhaghi, 25, when they noticed a run-down tennis court, as well as a retaining wall that was near crumbling. It was then that the CEO of streetwear brand Pink Dolphin wanted to improve what he considered an "eyesore" along the trail (which is temporarily closed until July 31 as it undergoes a $2 million renovation) that Khaila considers his backyard.

"We wanted to do something that we could see a real impact in our daily lives," Khaila told The Hollywood Reporter of his decision to contribute to the park. 

In July 2014, following what Khaila said was many calls and online research, he submitted a proposal to the Department of Recreation and Parks outlining the improvements for a basketball court and retaining wall, to which he'd be donating $260,000 to see the completion of the refurbishments. He also agreed to provide maintenance funding for 10 years, though he didn't specify the amount he'd have to spend within the decade.

Khaila got approval to move forward with his idea in November from the city, as well as community support from nonprofit organization Friends of Runyon Canyon (FORC), a grassroots volunteer group that works toward improving the park through fundraising efforts. However, despite Khaila's best intentions, he has hit a roadblock with the proposal.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the city is expected to take back its approval following public backlash and a lawsuit filed the week of April 18 by several residents near the park and a community group called Citizens Preserving Runyon, as well as another coalition known on Facebook as Runyon Canyon Defenders (RCD).

The suit argues that the court "will present a substantial permanent increase in ambient noise levels" in the park and its construction would compete with the park's 1986 master plan, according to the Times

Though Khaila wouldn't elaborate on the specifics of the lawsuit or when he expects to get his money back, he offered, "Right now we're working it out. As you can imagine, it's very complicated unwinding the whole thing, so we're just going through all the financials right now, working with Recs and Park."

The newspaper noted that the city would have to pay back Khaila roughly $210,000 for the project that already started construction around April.

"It's just unfortunate because I've spent two and a half years working on this," he lamented. "I've spent hundreds of hours on this thing, all to do something good. It's just sad that a small group of people can stop something great from happening."

Despite the backlash from the trail's nearby residents, Khaila said he only witnessed support on social media from his followers. (A quick scan on his Instagram and Twitter accounts revealed fans leaving comments that read, "thank you" or "get it bro.")

"I welcomed more community outreach. I said, 'Do you guys want to do a poll or have a town hall meeting?' but they didn't want to do it," said Khaila.

He also offered to remove the basketball court's display of the Pink Dolphin logo, which had been approved by the Department of Recreation and Parks through its partnership division, after critics condemned him for including it. Even so, Khaila's suggestion wasn't enough for the public, as residents still wanted to have the court removed altogether.

In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a Runyon Canyon Defenders spokesperson wrote: "Thanks to the grassroots efforts of our nearly one thousand members who called, wrote and faxed, City officials listened and, ultimately, did the correct thing: Cancel the whole dirty deal. We are relieved that Runyon Canyon will not be further desecrated. But we are also concerned that Friends of Runyon Canyon (FORC), the organization that hired and paid for the un-permitted and highly rushed demolition, has yet to assume full responsibility for their actions." 

According to RCD, its 1,000-member group consists of many members of the entertainment industry but declined to disclose their names to respect their privacy. Citizens Preserving Runyon did not immediately respond to THR's request for comment.

A spokesperson from the Friends of Runyon Canyon issued the following statement in response to the matter:

The basketball court project was an agreement that was developed between the Department of Recreation and Parks and Pink Dolphin. The scope of the project and construction were all negotiated between the City and Pink Dolphin directly. It was our role in the process to check the pulse of how the community would feel about the project. While we conducted some community outreach, it clearly was not enough. We regret this oversight and have apologized for it numerous times.

With nearly 2 million visits to the park every year, the trails of Runyon Canyon are being loved to death and need attention. The Friends of Runyon Canyon Foundation was started as a result of not being able to get funding from the city to fix some of the elements of the park that are currently in decline. We believe that the best way to address these issues will be through fundraising. This has worked successfully for other parks nationally as well as in our own city. Our goal is to find a way to meet the needs of the park while maintaining it as a wilderness area and keeping it in working condition for future generations of park goers.

Despite the possible demise of his project, Khaila remains positive.

"Cena and I are young entrepreneurs who started our business in high school and we just want our success and what we go through to pave the road for other young entrepreneurs and to let them know they can do something positive," said Khaila, whose label most recently collaborated with Puma and will be doing a pop-up during the upcoming Paris Fashion Week. "There's more to life than personal gain, and paying it forward is really important."

9:53 a.m. Monday, June 6: Updated with a statement from Friends of Runyon Canyon