Park to open a panoramic window on L.A.

Times Staff Writer

The history of preserving open space in the Los Angeles Basin, critics long have said, has been characterized by a lack of vision, as asphalt and concrete were given free run of the landscape.

Vision has won out, however, at what may be the single best vantage point in the metropolitan area, where earthmovers and workmen are laboring to create Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park.

The site, on the west side of La Cienega Boulevard opposite Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, is atop a hill that rises from the basin’s floor and affords an incomparable, nearly 360-degree vista of Greater L.A.

“There’s nothing else that gives you that good view of the ocean and the striking views of downtown, then down to Palos Verdes, all the way out to Point Mugu and the Santa Susana Mountains,” said Travis Longcore, director of urban ecological research at USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities. “It’s out there in the middle of the flat plain, sort of equidistant from downtown, the Santa Monica Mountains and the ocean, and that’s what makes it so interesting.”

On a recent morning at the site, as ranks of clouds advanced over the ocean toward a bright sun, the gathering gloom above the sea contrasted with the glinting windows of downtown’s office towers. The Santa Monica Mountains across the basin floor to the north were half in sun, half in shade. Only a small southeast section of the panorama was intruded upon; there, the hills of the Hahn park rise to 480 feet, about 60 feet higher than the overlook site.


The high points in Hahn, however, don’t offer nearly as sweeping a vista. “The eastern ridgeline in Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area is higher, but the overlook is at the toe of the hills,” said David McNeill, executive director of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, which played a major role in acquiring the new site.

“It sticks out farther to the north,” McNeill said. “Baldwin Hills is in the center of the fishbowl. You can go to Palos Verdes and see one way. You can go to the Hollywood Hills and see one way. But this rises from the middle of the urban environment.”

Through the efforts of the conservancy and other agencies, the state acquired the 68-acre onetime oil field in 2000 for $41.1 million, then the highest per-acre price ever paid for open space in the metropolitan area. (It was eclipsed by the $30 million the state paid the next year for the 32-acre cornfield site near Chinatown.) The purchase had to be hurried because the previous owners were already grading the site for the 230-home Vista Pacifica development, which nearby residents had battled for years in the courts.

The conservancy envisions an enormous contiguous park area that would include Hahn, Culver City Park and other smaller existing parks, plus the overlook site and future open spaces -- primarily oil fields -- on both sides of La Cienega. It’s an idea that has been around since the 1970s.

“We’re about halfway to our goal of 1,300 acres, which would make this larger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, larger than Central Park in New York,” McNeill said.

“With the scenic overlook, we’ve actually crossed over to the west side of La Cienega,” he said. “The overlook was always to be the jewel of the future park. If you didn’t get this spot on the western ridge, you would have really blown it. It has the potential to be a landmark in the park system.”

McNeill said the new overlook park, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year, will also give access to Ballona Creek and the bike path that runs along it to Marina del Rey. “All we have to do is build infrastructure over the creek to the bike path, and you’ll be able to bike from the hills to the ocean and back,” he said.

Only about 10 of the site’s acres are being re-sculpted by bulldozers, which are shaving back some of the slopes and depositing the pale, powdery dirt at the top of the site to create flat areas for a visitors center and 84 parking spaces.

The entire site is to be replanted with native vegetation. Unlike Hahn, with its ball fields and playgrounds, the scenic overlook will be dedicated to “passive recreation.” A one-mile hiking trail will be cut into the site, but people will go there primarily to relax amid the unsurpassed views.

The new park is to include viewing platforms, a multimedia theater, a multipurpose room for community meetings and a kitchen, as well as offices for staff, which is to be composed of two interpreter guides, half a dozen park rangers and maintenance personnel.

Park officials said they expect the primary users of the new park will be people who live nearby.

The site, which is mostly in Culver City, is near Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights and Inglewood, all communities with large minority populations. The new park, Longcore said, will also be “very close to the polyglot, low-income, highly diverse people in the flats of the city,” one of the most park-deficient locales in a notoriously park-poor metropolis.

“The same thing that gives it all those great views makes it close to areas that historically desperately need increased access to recreational open space,” he said.

Park advocates expect the overlook park to become a key venue for the environmental education of local schoolchildren. “For them to grow up as environmentally aware citizens, they have to be able to get out for unstructured recreation, to hang out in the sagebrush a little bit,” Longcore said.

“Anyone who lives in the Hollywood Hills has Runyon Canyon,” said McNeill.

“Anyone who lives on the Westside has the Santa Monica Mountains. In the Valley, you’ve got all the trails that are out there. But kids south of the 10 Freeway don’t get to do that, unless they go on a bus and drive for an hour and a half each way, which pretty much eats up a lot of the school day,” he said.

“Accessibility has always been the big barrier to outdoor education, and the scenic overlook is going to be the key to letting these kids get that.”