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The Valley's Answer to Central Park

Recreation: With millions of dollars worth of new amenities on the way, Hansen Dam is becoming the region's biggest public destination.


An announcement by the Dodgers and major league baseball of plans for a youth academy at Hansen Dam Recreation Area was only the latest in a series of projects to help reclaim what was once a crime-marred no man's land.

After a long, slow decline, the 1,400-acre park is again beckoning families, officials said.

"This is really something," Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) said. "And it's going to get better."

Berman pushed for construction in 1999 of two swimming and fishing lakes, at a cost of $15.8 million. The swimming lake drew 80,000 visitors last year. Other improvements are on the way, in addition to the $10-million baseball facility.

When completed, Hansen Dam will be the largest public destination in the San Fernando Valley, said David Gershwin, press secretary for City Councilman Alex Padilla.

The variety and concentration of projects suggests an idea for urban planning that Gershwin said has been lacking in Los Angeles--one that harks back to Frederick Law Olmstead's concept of Central Park as a place where a diverse city could rub shoulders for the greater good.

"I don't think the city has taken a regional approach to recreation and parks facilities like this before," Gershwin said. "It's like the idea behind Central Park: There will be something there for everybody. . . . The sheer diversity and number of broad-ranging activities . . . should be a model for similar recreational projects throughout Southern California."

In the pipeline for Hansen Dam are:

* A $40-million branch of the Los Angeles Children's Museum;

* Baseball fields and more than $12 million in improvements to soccer fields and other facilities;

* A $900,000 "boundless playground" for disabled children;

* A bike path and a skateboard park; and

* The purchase of two acres of grassy hills overlooking the dam.

Based on figures from Padilla's office, that's more than $71 million worth of planned, proposed or recently completed upgrades. The result will be "a real happenin' place" and a draw for all of parks-starved Los Angeles, said Ellen Oppenheim, general manager of the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which leases most of the land from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The new fishing lake has already changed life for Ricardo Yumul, 50, who lives 10 minutes away and has been coming three times a week since it opened.

Yumul hadn't had any luck with the trout on a recent weekday afternoon. With his view of the foothills and blue sky from his quiet spot on the shore, however, he didn't seem to mind.

"This is a really nice place," he said. "A good place to spend some time after work."

Parks officials have long wanted to spruce up Hansen Dam, a vast, mostly undeveloped area just below the northeast Valley's Tujunga Wash, whose primary purpose is to catch runoff from the nearby foothills.

The area's recreational attraction shrunk as its original 120-acre lake filled with silt over the years, eventually closing down in 1982. Aside from a popular and well-maintained golf course, much of Hansen Dam fell into disrepair.

"If you went into that area 10 years ago, it was a center for drug pushers," Berman said. "And it was poorly maintained. There were a few benches around, you had the remnants of the old pony fence, dirt all over the place, and you had that hole that sometimes filled with water, and sometimes wasn't filled with water. It just attracted a real criminal element."

The new projects have come in a torrent, Oppenheim said, because of the unprecedented amount of park money available from recent city, county and state bond measures. Many of the projects will benefit from a combination of these funds, while others, like the baseball academy and the children's museum, will rely on private funding as well.

The political climate is also right. With some in the Valley threatening to secede from Los Angeles, City Hall has been more attuned to complaints that the area is neglected.

And Valley politicians, like Berman, Padilla and Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Mission Hills), have been aggressive in looking for funds and courting partners such as major league baseball.

But the park also was fortunate to be one of the few remaining areas in Los Angeles that are big, flat and undeveloped.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to find land available for sale for parks," Oppenheim said. "When it is for sale, it's dreadfully expensive, and often means displacing existing uses. This is a case where we do have the land. It creates a very special opportunity."

While neighborhood activists have welcomed the lakes and new amenities for horses, the expanded plan for Hansen Dam has its critics. Some worry that their elected representatives are imposing an urban park on a rural area.

Lake View Terrace Homeowners Assn. President Nancy Snider, who has led neighborhood opposition to the baseball academy proposal, said the projects amount to "too much development, too fast."

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