Attorney Robert Garcia of the City Project, a nonprofit in the process of… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Against a backdrop of smiling children, cheering officials and rolling grasslands, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa savored a groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 1, 2005, for a nature preserve just northeast of downtown, declaring it "a historic moment for this community."
"The effort was a great example of what can be accomplished when the community and elected officials work toward a common goal -- in this case, preserving green, open space for the public to enjoy," said Villaraigosa, wearing a white hard hat and clutching a shovel to turn the first spadeful of dirt at Ascot Hills Park.
Today, the property tucked in the working-class communities of Lincoln Heights and Hillside Village stands as an emblem of what has not been accomplished. Scant areas of the 140-acre park are open to the public. Its most panoramic hilltops and largest patches of remnant native plants remain locked up behind "no trespassing" signs.
The park was scheduled to be completed by June 2007, according to an analysis of park documents conducted by the City Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating more public open space.
"Instead, we have padlocks, no trespassing signs and broken promises -- and no good explanation for it," said attorney Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, which has begun the process to file a suit against the city.
Surveying the land recently from a road blocked by a locked gate, he shook his head and said, "These locks and signs are symbols of bureaucratic incompetence and political indifference toward our rights to open space."
Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a joint powers authority under contract to design and manage the park, would not go that far. But he was only half-kidding when he said in an interview, "I hope Mayor Villaraigosa's New Year's resolution is to finish Ascot Hills Park in 2010."
City officials acknowledge that the project is behind schedule, but blame the delay on the state. In 2008, $3 million in state bond funds allocated for development of the park were frozen because of the state budget crisis.
The funds recently became available, officials said, provided the money could be spent by March 2011. Unable to arrange construction contracts and building plans in time to meet that deadline, the city requested an extension. City officials said they were told by the state that extension requests must be submitted during the same year as the impending deadline, which has led to further delays.
City officials now hope to complete the park by 2013. Critics, however, have begun to wonder whether the park will ever become a reality.
Villaraigosa, who once represented the district that includes Ascot Hills while on the City Council, was unavailable for comment. But Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who won Villaraigosa's seat on the council, said, "We've got to find ways to make up for the delays and get it done sooner than 2013, if possible. We owe it to the community to get this park back on track, and expedite it."
In early December, the City Project urged the city to alleviate park and recreation disparities in communities including Lincoln Heights, as called for by the city controller in several audits, or face a lawsuit.
"I requested a meeting with city officials including the mayor and the heads of the Department of Recreation and Parks to discuss the matter," Garcia said. "I got no response."
Community groups and conservationists have long feuded over plans for Ascot Hills, which was first proposed as a city park in 1930. Students at adjacent Wilson High School, for example, in 2000 helped thwart a proposal that would have flattened some hilltops for soccer fields and baseball diamonds. But many of those groups unified in 2004 under a proposal to have a local conservancy manage the city-owned land and develop nature trails and habitat restoration programs.
Ascot Hills received its name from the former Legion Ascot Speedway, which was Los Angeles' most popular auto racetrack during the 1920s and '30s. Today, the small portion of the site open to the public is operated by the city parks department. The rest is controlled by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Just a 10-minute drive northeast of downtown, Ascot Hills supports a surprisingly diverse array of plants and animals. On a recent cold and rainy weekday, hawks soared over its steep slopes in search of rodents. White-crowned sparrows, blue-gray gnatcatchers and brown towhees flitted from one branch to another in tall brush.
Dan Cooper, president of the Los Angeles biological consulting firm Cooper Ecological Monitoring Inc., described the site's high country habitat as "echoes of native Los Angeles."
"One of the neatest things about the Ascot Hills Park site," Cooper said, "is that many of its slopes are too steep for city heavy equipment operators to plow for fire control. As a result, fascinating native species are found there, such as the white-tailed kite, which is a bird of prey that hovers while hunting, and beautiful rare flowers called golden stars."
"The wildlife of Ascot Hills Park may not be endangered or threatened," he added, "but you are not likely to run across it in your neighborhood."