At first, officials and residents thought it seemed like a great idea to convert a grassy knoll on a hilltop Eagle Rock neighborhood into a city park.
First, there was the view--a spectacular vista that took in the San Gabriel Mountains, the San Fernando Valley, the Griffith Park Observatory and the cars that moved like scurrying beetles along the Glendale Freeway.
Second, it was a bargain. Caltrans, which purchased the 3.39 acres for right of way when it built the Glendale Freeway, had agreed to lease it to the city Recreation and Parks Department for $1 a year.
And last, city officials expected that the benches, play equipment and picnic tables installed in the park would create a pleasant recreational center where none had existed before.
But Round Top Drive Park, which formally opened in 1979, quickly began to attract a less desirable crowd once the sun went down, according to local residents. Teen-agers gathered there on weekends to drink beer, vandals broke the playground swings and litterers left behind a carpet of broken glass, according to city officials, residents and the police.
"It became an attractive nuisance. It was one of the ones we had to attend to pretty regularly," said Los Angeles Police Capt. Myron Wasson of the Northeast Division.
By the early 1980s, the hilltop residents who had fought so hard to open the park were pleading to have it closed down.
"It seemed like the park wasn't serving the purpose of the neighborhood anymore," said Phyllis Dyer, one of 45 nearby residents who signed a petition last year asking for Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre's help in closing the park.
Last July, city officials moved to fulfill the residents' wishes. They tore out sprinklers and moved the benches and remaining equipment to the Eagle Rock Recreation Center. Late last year, a chain-link fence went up around the property. Weeds grew. The park was formally closed last month, and today, recreation and park officials are beginning the laborious process of removing the drinking fountains and lights and bulldozing the terraced steps and walkways, according to Mike Gonzales, an Alatorre aide.
A spokeswoman for Caltrans, which again controls the land, said the state agency will inquire whether any other government agency is interested in the property. If not, the site will probably be put up for sale within six months, leading some neighbors to speculate that homes may soon perch on the hillside bluff and block their view.
Los Angeles has a law prohibiting the sale of dedicated parkland, but that does not apply to Round Top Drive Park because the park was only leased to the city, according to parks officials.
However, the land is designated as a community park site on the city's general plan and potential developers would have to apply to the Los Angeles Planning Commission for a zone change in order to build on the site, according to Sal Salinas, a city planner for Northeast Los Angeles.
To nearby homeowners, the story of Round Top Drive Park illustrates the frustration that can accompany the best-laid plans to improve their community.
Some say privately that the police did not provide enough security patrols and that the parks department did not keep up the playground equipment or install enough lights. This, in turn, made the park a haven for young loiterers, they say.
"I would have much rather seen some attempt to clean the park up and enforce the 10:30 p.m. closing," said Alan E. Frisbie, a computer consultant whose home adjoins the park.
Frisbie said he is sad to see the park destroyed.
"I like parks. I grew up near one. If you lose a park, you never get it back," Frisbie said.
Art Snyder, the former councilman for Eagle Rock who was instrumental in opening Round Top, said he had a "love-hate relationship" with the park but could not bear to close it while he was in office. Snyder lives a few blocks away.
To parks officials, the problems with Round Top Drive Park are symptomatic of those they face throughout the city with night-time activity in parks--especially smaller parks.
"Small vest-pocket parks are generally not successful because of their close proximity to neighbors," said Richard Ginevan, chief parks supervisor for the city's Recreation and Parks Department. In contrast, he said, large parks tend to have buffer zones between them and the neighbors.
Ginevan said it is very unusual for the department to shut down one of the 350 developed parks that comprise about 7,500 acres in Los Angeles. One that did close temporarily because of problems with vagrants, he recalled, was Gladys Avenue Park in the Skid Row section of downtown Los Angeles.
City officials said they agreed to close Round Top Drive Park because of repeated complaints from residents over the years. The closure leaves two large parks in Eagle Rock: 10-acre Yosemite Recreation Center and 22-acre Eagle Rock Recreation Area, Ginevan said. Both are within five miles of Round Top.
Some civic leaders, such as Kathleen Aberman of the Eagle Rock Community Assn., said they were unaware of the controversy surrounding the park or its proposed closure. Others said they felt neighbors made a strong case for shutting it down.
"I can understand how those people feel up there. . . . It's ruining their property value," said Katie Smith, a local realtor.
Frisbie appears to be one of the few Eagle Rock residents who mourns the park's demise.
Standing knee-high in the weeds that have sprouted in the once-pristine park, he mused, "People enjoyed it during the day. You'd see mothers with their babies."