El Sereno saves the Heavens

Chris Hogenesch walks with his dogs on the hill. "There aren't many places like this left in Los Angeles," he says. "I like to hang out up there and watch the sunset."
Chris Hogenesch walks with his dogs on the hill. “There aren’t many places like this left in Los Angeles,” he says. “I like to hang out up there and watch the sunset.”
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
For a measure of solace in the city, Hugo Garcia climbs to the top of a hill crowned with walnut groves that El Sereno residents know simply as the Heavens.

Elephant Hill: In Tuesday’s Section A, a map with an article about the Los Angeles City Council agreeing to purchase property in El Sereno for a nature preserve labeled the area incorrectly. The area designated on the map as “New parkland” should have been marked “Elephant Hill.” A 20-acre portion of that area was purchased for parkland. —

“The Heavens are as good as it gets” northeast of downtown Los Angeles, said Garcia, 52, a leader of a struggle to stave off development on what remains the largest open space left in the working-class Latino community. “The Westside has the Pacific Ocean. We’ve got this hill, a place of nature and solitude -- and we’d like to keep it that way.”

El Sereno residents were elated when the Los Angeles City Council voted a week ago to settle a lawsuit over a contested luxury subdivision planned for the hill, agreeing to buy the property for $9 million with a goal of transforming it into a nature preserve in a community with one of the lowest parkland-to-people ratios the city.

The developers of the property, Monterey Hills Investors, had sued the city after the council demanded more environmental review of the project planned for the site.

The settlement was a milestone in a 25-year battle with opponents who believed the development would have destroyed a relic urban ecosystem and the community’s low-key residential character.

But the work is far from over.

“Our first objective was to get control of the site,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes El Sereno. “The next step is to determine exactly where we go from here.”

The answer to that question, Huizar said, will depend on how much money can be raised to operate the new park.

Huizar said the city may borrow money in the short term to pay for the property. Over the long term, however, the city may seek state funding to help defray the costs of improvements including hiking trails, interpretive signs, picnic grounds, a panoramic lookout and habitat restoration.

Many community leaders hope to see the hill eventually operated under the auspices of an environmental agency such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Up close, the hill shows scars. Slopes are crisscrossed by ruts carved decades ago by motorcyclists and off-roaders, and strewn with trash, beer bottles and car parts. Aggressive brush clearance efforts designed to prevent fires have instead have resulted in an invasion of extremely flammable nonnative grasses and weeds.

Nonetheless, a surprisingly diverse natural community clings to existence on the hill.

Just a few yards from the site of a recent news conference held to announce the settlement, an alligator lizard slithered through tall grass. A black phoebe flitted from branch to branch in a shady ravine also inhabited by king snakes and rarely seen black-bellied slender salamanders.

“There was no way we were going to let this place be paved over with roads and homes,” said community activist Elva Yanez, 56, who lives nearby. “We fought like pit bulls to protect it. Environmental justice has been served.”

Her next-door neighbor, Casey Reagan, 54, agreed.

“It’s a good day in the neighborhood,” he said. “Even the screech owls have been hoo-hooing in celebration.”

The developer and its lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The effort to spare the hill from development began in 1984 when a previous developer, Greenhills Investment Co., sought approval from the city to build homes on 15 acres near the border of Los Angeles and South Pasadena.

A decade later, three El Sereno homeowners associations raised concerns about the project’s potential for causing landslides and flooding.

In 2003, Greenhills sold the parcels and entitlements to Monterey Hills Investors, which is owned by Newport Beach-based SWD Communities, for roughly $2 million.

On a war footing, Yanez and Garcia waged door-to-door campaigns in the modest stucco homes surrounding the hill. They also organized neighborhood council meetings and pored over public records.

“Without a penny raised or a website, we ran a highly strategic campaign,” Yanez said. “We gave our lives to this issue.”

Their investigations revealed that after the city had approved a final tract map for the 24-lot development in 2004, the developer had expanded the proposed project -- without further review --to 56 lots, roughly tripling the amount of grading required.

That information was handed over to the law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, which represents four El Sereno residents, the Latino Urban Forum and the Natural Resources Defense Council on a contingency basis.

“What grabbed me about this case was the unfairness of it all,” said attorney Doug Carstens. “Essentially, just as these community members were making their voice heard in City Hall after years of struggle, they were being told it was too late because of prior approvals.”

Now, he added, “What has been for so many years a battleground can become a playground for generations to come.”

In 2007, Huizar persuaded the City Council to withhold a building permit for the project until the developer completed a supplemental environmental impact report.

Instead, the developer sued the city. The developer’s attorney sought up to $35 million in damages, city officials said. The City Council voted to acquire the litigated 15 acres plus five contiguous additional acres for $9 million.

“That’s great news,” said Chris Hogenesch, 37, a substitute teacher who walks his dogs up the hill at least three times a week. “There aren’t many places like this left in Los Angeles. There’s a really nice 360-degree view of downtown and the San Gabriel Valley. I like to hang out up there and watch the sunset.”

Locals are already swapping possible names for the new park.

City Hall officials tend to refer to the property as Elephant Hill, a name coined in the late 1970s by Los Angeles Police Department officers who claimed the site resembled a pachyderm when viewed from high overhead in a law enforcement helicopter.

The developer hoped to call its luxury home project Monterey Vistas.

But Garcia suggested that both of those titles “have negative connotations” that might reinforce “perceptions of El Sereno as the backwaters” of Northeast Los Angeles.

Striding up a dirt road leading to the top of the hill on a recent weekday, he said, “If they come to the community for suggestions, I’m going to recommend that they call it the Heavens.”