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Park the Sole Survivor of Airport Expansion

July 31, 1986|JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

The park is an island of green grass and palm trees. It is surrounded by a chain-link fence that separates it from deserted streets with tall weeds poking through the pavement. For as far as the eye can see, dry brush covers the crumbling foundations of demolished homes.

Vista del Mar Park once was the playground for a middle-class neighborhood in Playa del Rey. But 10 years ago the last homes were swallowed up by Los Angeles International Airport.

Park Is Still Used

Yet on almost any sunny day people still come to the park across from the beach despite the planes roaring overhead.

"I come here for peace and quiet," Herbert Sheppard, 27, of Carson said between takeoffs.

Sheppard was sitting on the grass and reading a book. "You know L. A.," he said. "There are people crowding the freeways, the stores and the parks. The planes here keep most people away."

Vista del Mar Park, with its cement picnic table and single drinking fountain, looks like any urban park except for the six-foot fence topped by three strands of nasty-looking, rusted barbed wire. The fence, which runs along three sides of the park, encloses the ruins of the surrounding neighborhood.

The 35-year-old park, with its 40 or so palm trees, covers 1.8 acres and gently slopes down to Vista del Mar, the street that runs parallel to the ocean. Visitors have a spectacular view of the ocean.

Dave Losee of Lawndale went to the park on a recent afternoon to watch the ocean and play his harmonica between takeoffs.

"I've been coming here most of the summer," he said. "I work nearby and this is the only place

around here where you can sit and look at the water. But it is noisy."

As he turned to look at the fenced-off area of empty streets and dry brush, Losee said, "I know there used to be something here."

The northern part of the neighborhood of middle-class homes that occupied the 302 acres west of the airport between Pershing Drive and the ocean was purchased and demolished by the airport in the 1960s after its northern runways were opened.

The 400 remaining homes were dubbed "The Island" by area residents until they were removed in the mid-1970s. The continual roar of low-flying jets prompted homeowner protests that eventually forced the airport to buy the entire neighborhood, tear it down and fence it off.

Ocean-View Homes

"It was an upper middle-class neighborhood," said Jim Mitcheltree, 55, a real estate salesman who lived just south of the park until the airport bought his home in 1976.

"It used to be called Del Rey Estates," he said. "The homes were larger than in northern Playa del Rey and most of them had ocean views. It was very close-knit. It was a typical neighborhood with a lot of kids. Vista del Mar Park was used by the neighborhood. It was just a nice little park, utilized but not overworked."

Leaving the neighborhood was hard. "I was one of the last to go," said Mitcheltree, who now lives farther north in Playa del Rey. "It was very traumatic. A lot of friends moved away. And it was hard for people to relocate because at that time the price of property was taking off."

Since the airport purchased Del Rey Estates the area has remained abandoned, the street lights have been removed and the street names erased from many Los Angeles maps.

The airport has been trying to get Coastal Commission approval for the construction of a golf course on the land. But in November, 1985, the commission rejected the airport's proposal because the golf course would also destroy the nearby El Segundo Dunes, which is the breeding ground of an almost extinct butterfly.

Biological Study Planned

Airport environmental manager Maurice Lahman said the airport plans to conduct a biological study of the area over an 18-month period and determine the best way to save the El Segundo Blue butterfly. He said the butterfly is found only on a few acres that could be used as a butterfly preserve, while the airport builds its golf course on the rest of the land.

As for Vista del Mar Park, it is going to stay right where it is. "The park is dedicated property; we don't destroy parks," said Al Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department.

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