San Gabriel Valley’s newest park on site of former landfill

Victor Moreno stood on Nike Hill, wiping sweat from his forehead and dust from his eyes.

The three-mile run on a sun-drenched afternoon had been a challenge, but the reward was worth it: from the 1,160-foot spot in the Puente Hills, he was treated to a gorgeous 360-degree view. The skyscrapers of Los Angeles soar to the west, the majesty of the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. To the east stretched the seemingly endless Inland Empire, while the suburbs of Orange County sprawled to the south.

A truck drives through the former Puente Hills landfill.

A truck drives through part of the future Puente Hills park in July. The landfill operated from 1957 until its closure on October 31, 2013.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

But what really mattered to 32-year-old Moreno was the opportunity to introduce his 12-year-old daughter, Janae – who was just making her first ascent – to things many city dwellers never see: darting lizards, hopping rabbits and diving birds of prey. For years, the partially paved path has been a haven for Moreno, a place to relax and more recently to unmask. The Hacienda Heights resident said he looks forward to his daughter making memories there.

Much of the nature surrounding the trail was for decades part of the country’s largest garbage dump — the Puente Hills Landfill, which contained a third of Los Angeles County’s garbage. Now it is to be the first regional park that the district has created in 30 years.

“It’s hard to find that view anywhere in Los Angeles,” Moreno said. “We are fortunate to have this and pass it on to the next generation.”

The LA County Board of Supervisors recently approved $28.25 million to begin work on the design and construction of Puente Hills Regional Park, carved out of 142 acres of the former 1,356-acre landfill.

“It has been six years since the completion of the Puente Hills Landfill Park Master Plan and nine years since the landfill was closed. Our communities have waited far too long for this park,” said supervisor Hilda Solis, who grew up in La Puente and represents the area where the park will be located after the funding application was accepted.

Construction phase I includes a preliminary cycling course, a children’s play area, a picnic area, stairways, open spaces and a parking lot. A grassland area hosts performances, kite flying, concerts and other events.

“We see this park as a restoration of land that was unusable and unsuitable for the community,” said Norma Edith García-González, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.

A crow flies over part of the future Puente Hills Landfill Park in Puente Hills

A crow flies over a portion of the future Puente Hills Landfill Park in Puente Hills on July 13, 2022. The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation gave a tour of the first regional county park being built in the San Gabriel Valley in 30 years.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

“Now these communities that sacrificed so much life next to this landfill can benefit from their cleanup.”

The landfill operated from 1957 until its closure on October 31, 2013. The garbage covered an estimated 602 acres, was piled 500 feet high, and weighed about 130 million tons.

Nancy Lara, who has lived a half-mile from the landfill for more than two decades, has spent years at war with the rodents, mosquitoes and flies, which she said are attracted to the dump. The infestation was so bad that she encouraged neighborhood stray cats to stay near her home to kill the rats and mice. The smell of the landfill was nearly constant, she said.

“I never really thought anything would happen because there was talk of closing the landfill and building a park for years,” Lara said. “Nice to see that something is finally happening.”

The need for more green space in the eastern and southeastern communities of Los Angeles County is undisputed.

Hikers pose for their friend

Hikers pose for their friend on camera against the backdrop of Nike Hill’s future Puente Hills Landfill Park in Puente Hills July 13, 2022. The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation gave a tour of what will be the first regional county park, built in the San Gabriel Valley for 30 years.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Tori Kjer, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, an advocacy group that has helped create 29 city parks since 2002, said projects like Puente Hills Park have long-term benefits, especially in low-resource communities.

“Parks are critical infrastructure … for healthy communities,” Kjer said. “We’re seeing a direct correlation between places like Beverly Hills, which have lots of parks, and Watts, where they’re lacking. There is a significant difference in life expectancy.”

(A 2017 Los Angeles County report cited green spaces and bike lanes as important factors in longer lifespans, along with components like fresh produce stores, affordable health care, and a strong work-life balance.)

A total of $114 million was allocated for the first phase of construction at Puente Hills – a combination of regional and state funds. The entire project could take more than two decades to complete, with first construction buckets scheduled to break ground in 2025.

In the meantime, Boyle Heights Studio-MLA, a landscape and architectural design firm contracted by the Parks Authority, will conduct community outreach while officials obtain the permits necessary for work to begin.

As for garbage, it continues to settle under protective clay caps placed over the landfill to prevent rainwater from mixing with the debris. There is also a piping system to transport gases, mostly methane, away from the landfill and into storage for eventual sale to the Southern California Gas Co.

Maintenance and monitoring of the debris beneath the park is expected to continue for 75 years as the debris settles and eventually compresses by an estimated 25%. In some parts, colonization can shrink underground dumps by as much as 125 feet.

Approximately 300,000 yards of earth have been added to 27 of the 40 acres of the western portion of the parkland where construction will begin. That soil will create a “lasagna structure” of defense, where trash will be buried under layers of clay and soil, García-González said.

“The science is there to support this effort,” said Studio MLA founder Mia Lehrer, citing other landfills that have been successfully converted into parks. As an example, she cited the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s South Coast Botanic Garden, a former diatomaceous earth mine and landfill that was transformed into a garden in 1961.

Upon completion of Phase 1, future sections of Puente Hills Park will include horse, bike and running trails, a dog park, bike park, ecology visitor center, hill slides and food truck areas.

According to park and recreation staff, the plan has been well received over several rounds of community feedback. However, a downside noted by several residents was the lack of sports fields.

Six people are hiking on a paved path.

Hikers walk down a road where future park at Puente Hills is being developed. The park will include multi-purpose trails, jogging loops, a bike skills park and a horseback riding area.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

There is no space for sports facilities, due in part to the unevenness of the settled ground and the difficulty of maintaining grass fields while preventing water from seeping into the garbage below.

“The bells and whistles sound great, but I’m disappointed that we can’t have a park for soccer or football or softball,” said Kelly Torres, 38, a mother of two from La Puente, after a hike. “We need that in the region.”

Hector Hernandez, a Baldwin Park resident who spotted hawks on a nature walk with two of his children — ages 10 and 6 — disagreed.

The 53-year-old said he plays football in a Sunday “beer league” that meets in Glendale. What he’s looking forward to is a quieter, kid-friendly place for his family.

“You can find soccer fields everywhere,” he said, “but to find nature close by and that view is something else. It should be protected.” San Gabriel Valley’s newest park on site of former landfill

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