A tiny, unofficial-looking sign tacked to a light pole on Sesnon Boulevard is the only clue that O’Melveny Park is nearby. Just as Sesnon disappears into a dirt-and-gravel path that seems headed for a cliff, the road opens to the park’s entrance, a nearly empty parking lot.
The few visitors at the park, a pristine combination of mountainous terrain and pockets of grassland, say an afternoon at O’Melveny is a refreshing retreat from civilization. There are no baseball diamonds, basketball courts or covered picnic areas. It is a quarter-mile walk from the car to the only developed area--two large meadows dotted with brown concrete tables.
Even on a Sunday afternoon, the park, tucked away in Bee Canyon above Granada Hills, retains its reputation as the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ well-kept secret.
For more than a decade it has been virtually untouched by recreational development and public use despite the fact that, at 714 acres, it is second only to the 4,000-acre Griffith Park as the largest park owned by the city. And, for the meantime, with little funding for improvements and supervision, the city is content to keep it that way, although it will start taking reservations for large picnic groups.
“If it is being used at 10% of its capacity, I’d be surprised,” said Joel Breitbart, assistant general manager of planning and development for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks.
Half of the park was purchased by the city in 1973 for $454,760, and the other half was donated by John O’Melveny of the Los Angeles-based law firm of O’Melveny and Myers. O’Melveny bought the land in 1937 as a cattle ranch and weekend residence.
The parking lot, picnic area and the property’s original white barn and three bungalows are the only structures. The highest point is 3,000 feet above sea level. A stream gurgles nearly year-round down the canyon and through the picnic area.
“You aren’t going to find any merry-go-rounds at this place,” said Robert Adair, whose group of three friends and two toddlers were the only picnickers in the park on a recent Sunday. “There’s no writing on the bathroom walls. You can go for walks on all these dirt trails. Just look beyond and see these rolling hills.”
The master plan for the park designates it for passive uses such as hiking, horseback riding and picnicking and calls for a main four-mile trail looping around the park with a series of smaller trails winding through the interior. It also calls for overnight camping areas.
But, since city law requires fire hydrant service along public trails, the cost of completing the plan would be $7 million to $8 million-- money that is not available, Breitbart said.
“We have developed the easiest areas,” he said. “The flatlands, the picnic area. Really, all we can afford to do is take advantage of any financial opportunities that come along and develop the areas as the money comes in.”
In the past five years, about $750,000 has been spent on park development--irrigation systems, bathrooms, picnic tables and a white wooden fence along the stream, Breitbart said. The project money was awarded to the city from state park bond funds approved in 1980.
The city has an application pending with the state Parks and Recreation Department for an additional $800,000 in bond funds approved by voters last June. However, O’Melveny Park is in competition with other cities for bond money, and word of the award is not expected until March, Breitbart said.
Fearing that an onslaught of visitors would create maintenance and personnel demands that the budget could not handle, the park has been operated quietly for the past decade. Until now, no park-sponsored programs have been permitted, said John Ward, manager of the Valley Region for the city parks department.
Last week, the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers donated $50,000 to the park, which Ward said will be used to refurbish the barn at the entrance to the park and complete a two-mile trail.
The reservations for picnic groups will begin in June, Ward said.
“It should become a very popular place if big groups start going,”
“If all kinds of people find out about it, it’s not going to be as peaceful. But there is not much you can do about it,” said Thomas Astone, a park visitor. “I just wish they could make more places like this.”