It wasn't real for Rudy Torres until the construction trucks and orange-vested surveyors started to roll past the gate at Ascot Hills near El Sereno this week.
The 140 acres of rolling grassland near where the 56-year-old retiree grew up will finally, after decades of setbacks, become a public park. The gates blocking the community from the hilltops will come down, nature trails will be carved out and a stream will be built, along with an amphitheater and picnic areas.
"At least that's what the city is telling us," Torres said. "But seeing is believing."
He and other Eastsiders in search of more open space are eagerly but cautiously awaiting the opening of Ascot Hills Park, a nature reserve to be completed March 2011. Until now, most of this city-owned land — populated by a vast mix of native plants and wild animals — has sat empty: a subject of debate among community groups and a symbol of bureaucratic morass.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the district, proclaimed during a groundbreaking ceremony last week that the wait was over.
"Instead of waiting for others to act," Huizar said, "we decided to act ourselves and put this project back on track."
City officials have blamed delays in recent years on the state, which in 2008 froze the $3 million in bond money allocated for the park's development. When that money recently became available, Huizar said, his office worked to get the city's Department of Recreation and Parks to take over the project. Bringing in an outside contractor, he said, would have taken more time and potentially jeopardized the state money, which must be spent by March.
Community groups plan to make sure the city gets the job done.
"It will either happen or the city will face a lawsuit to make it happen," said attorney Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, which had already begun to take legal action against the city for failing to provide the area's residents with adequate park and recreation space. "We're not going to let them break their promise to the children and the people of Los Angeles anymore."
The group, based downtown, plans to take monthly photos of construction progress and keep track with a countdown on its website.
The first suggestion that Ascot Hills become a park was in 1930, but nothing came of it. Over the decades, community groups fought off numerous plans to develop the land. In 2000, protests by environmental groups and students from nearby Wilson High School helped foil a plan to flatten the hills to make room for soccer fields and baseball diamonds.
In 2005, Mayor Villaraigosa proudly announced groundbreaking for a nature reserve. The project was scheduled to be completed in 2007. But after a parking lot, an entrance gate and a few trails were built, the plan fell by the wayside.
Today, the land is green and covered with wildflowers. Sparrows and gnatcatchers mingle with hawks. People living nearby often sneak through a hole in one of the tall fences to walk their dogs at sundown.
Torres remembers playing in the hills as a little boy. Decades later, his sons began to jog along the same pathways.
"It's my backyard, it's my home," said Torres, pointing toward the hillsides visible from his kitchen window.
He said he looks forward to the day when he can stroll freely into the park with his grandson and perhaps pick up some mulch for his garden.