The consultants hired by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to design a plan for Mulholland Gateway Park confessed this week that they had encountered a surprise along the way.
"It is safe to say that we started out designing a park and discovered" a unique urban wilderness, planner Randy Hester said Tuesday night at the unveiling of a proposal to develop parking, trails and ranger cottages at the 1,000-acre park in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The gateway park, stitched together by the conservancy from lands acquired from developers, forms the northern fringe of what park planners call the "Big Wild"--an 18,500-acre wildlife area that includes 10,000-acre Topanga State Park and other public lands at Encino Reservoir and Rustic, Sullivan and Mission canyons.
The proposal, presented at a public meeting at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, seeks to improve access from the San Fernando Valley side for hikers and other visitors to the mountains, but comes down squarely against paving a seven-mile dirt stretch of Mulholland Drive atop the southwestern rim of the Valley.
Besides improving visitor access, the goal of the proposal is "preserving and fortifying the Big Wild," according to a written summary released Tuesday by Community Development by Design of Berkeley, the conservancy's consultants.
The area already is used by mountain bikers, equestrians and hikers--some of whom wanted it left alone as a northern extension of Topanga State Park. But the limited amenities sought in the proposal offered no comfort to those on the opposite side, who sought intensive development in the park--hoping that would spur paving of Mulholland.
The proposal envisions three new eastern and northern gateways into the Big Wild to go with those already existing at Will Rogers State Historic Park and Trippett Ranch in Topanga State Park.
The eastern gateway would be San Vicente Mountain Park, a litter-strewn former Nike missile observation post turned over to the city of Los Angeles but never run as a park.
The conservancy wants to take over management of San Vicente park and is negotiating the issue with the city.
The proposal unveiled Tuesday for San Vicente calls for creation of 10 parking spaces, repair of an existing observation tower, planting of shade trees, restoration of natural vegetation, and development of a small picnic area, restrooms, drinking water and a trail head. A ranger residence would also be built at the San Vicente site.
The proposal calls for two northern gateways--one at the mouth of Caballero Canyon east of Braemar Country Club and the other near Mulholland at the top of Reseda Boulevard, which was recently extended as part of a luxury housing development.
Both sites would have parking and a trail head.
For months, planning for the park has been enmeshed in the turbulent conflict over paving part of Mulholland Drive--the bumpy seven-mile dirt road between Encino and Woodland Hills. Opposing groups have clashed over the design, less out of interest in the park than out of interest in its impact on other development issues.
Some conservationists and hillside residents have sought minimal park development, fearing a developed park would require paving of access roads or parts of Mulholland Drive. This, they fear, would encourage more housing tracts or even trash dumps in areas of the mountains not now accessible.
On the other hand, some hillside residents of Encino--joined together as the Encino Traffic Safety Committee--have sought to use the park as a way to create new shortcuts for heavy cross-mountain commuter traffic that now passes through their neighborhood.
The proposal presented Tuesday left open the possibility of improving Mulholland Drive as a dirt or gravel road. But it rejected the idea of paving, citing negative effects on deer and other wildlife.
The Encino traffic problem would "not be solved by the paving of Mulholland" anyway, the summary said.
The proposal left open alternative designs for the parking areas and other features in the park. After presentation of the proposal, many of the 65 people in attendance broke into groups to discuss the choices that lie ahead.
Guided by recommendations from the public, planners hope to complete a more formal draft of the plan by June, said Marcia McNally, a partner in Community Development by Design. She said the timing and cost of park development are unknown.