In high school Roy Payan ran the hills of Montecito Heights for cross country. He remembers being chased by road runner hens and a very green place with rabbits and lizards high above the city in a place known as Flat Top.By NATHAN SOLIS
Today, Payan, a 57-year-old retiree, walks the trail to Flat Top and the area is bare. There are few trees along the trail, and for years the ground has been tilled up, leaving only sand and rag weeds dotting the landscape. Beer bottles and bullet casings also litter the ground. But the glamour of Flat Top can’t be denied, like a stage atop a hill with the citizens of Los Angeles below as the audience.
The County of Los Angeles recently agreed to purchase a section of Flat Top to be preserved as open space on the border of Montecito Heights and Lincoln Heights. The property owners planned to build homes on the land, but Payan, along with a handful of other residents, have spent the last ten years convincing the owners that this was a bad idea. As the president of the Montecito Heights Improvement Association Payan, has been thinking about Flat Top on a constant basis, about the ground soil and the vegetation, about the change in seasons and the rest of the 36 acres. One reason the owners sold Flat Top is because building on a hillside is expensive. Another reason is because a small group of residents were persistent in preserving open space.
“Right now this is a place where people come to drink and get high,” says Payan. “It’s mainly due to a lack of communal ownership. All that will change now.”
You’ve been involved with this project for close to ten years now. Was there ever a time when you felt that it was too much to handle?
I get pretty tenacious when I start working on something. So, I tried not to lose focus. At times it got daunting. I wanted this to remain an open space. There are parts of the community that can be developed, but this was not one of them. Only because this was such a precious commodity, I didn’t think it would benefit anyone. It has been historically open to all of us over the years.
What’s the history of the space?
In the 1920s Aimee Semple McPherson bought the land and built a radio tower. During the Great Depression her church, Foursquare Church in Echo Park, was doing well, so she had the money to buy up land. But over the years the church sold parcels. Around 1987 the area was not gated and there would be wild parties up here every weekend. One time an LAPD helicopter was called in, and he must have been flying too close to the hillside because someone threw a bottle and hit the helicopter and all sorts of backup was called in. The environment was being devastated, so the community got together and purchased a fence. Around 2011 a developer from the church came to us with the owner’s intentions to build on Flat Top. We’ve had several other developers come in and try to sell homes for higher prices around Montecito Heights. But they have to realize that this isn’t Manhattan Beach, you’re not going to be able to sell a home for a million dollars here. Even with the view. Houses on Flat Top wouldn’t have had enough space for a full home. You wouldn’t even have a front or back yard.
Who were the major players in this before Supervisor Molina stepped in with the funds to purchase the land from the church?
There were a group of people in the community working to preserve the space. Tom Berg and Nancy Smith were bringing to our attention what was happening at Flat Top. They were instrumental in getting a feasibility and geological study conducted by the Santa Monica Conservancy that would have potentially turned this into a park at an earlier date. Before there were some vague suggestions of working with the owners of the property to sell the land to the Santa Monica Conservancy, but neither side was really aggressive or didn’t make a strong enough offer. Things just fell apart. The church’s developer was polite enough to keep all channels of conversation open with us after 2011 as we made our argument to them. We never got to the point in being combative, so everything worked out in a civil way.
What was the turning point where you saw that something could be done?
When [First District Councilman] Gil Cedillo took office, we brought his field rep up here and presented our situation, and she in turn brought the councilmember up here. That’s when we got the letter of support from him to preserve Flat Top as an open space. Once that was announced it pretty much took any development off the table, because no developer wants to put money into a dead project.
What is the future for Flat Top?
It’s going to be ceded to the city under Recs and Parks. Then North East Trees will manage it. What we hope and what I envision is a beautiful place. In the summer there is no shade here, so maybe they’ll put some California Oak, some milkweed here and benches so people can enjoy the view. A lot of times people have the attitude that you should make the environment safer for nearby communities, but you have to live side-by-side with nature. That’s why the land was tilled and the trees were removed. But in doing that the wildlife disappeared. There are no more bushes for ground-laying birds, no more vegetation for rabbits. I hope that this becomes a place where nature can return and people can come from all over to enjoy the view, not to just pass through here. And maybe a community garden so people can have a real sense of ownership.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.
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