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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023

Stevens: Valley Nursery Property Sold to Developer

For nearly 65 years, locals knew they could always stop to smell the roses at Steven’s Nursery & Hardware. Now the Valley Village institution may be closing, a victim of the sky-high land prices that demand the highest and best uses be made of available parcels. The property has been sold to a developer who hopes to construct luxury condominiums on the site at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Riverside Drive. Keeping the nursery on the ground floor level of the complex would require building a four-story condominium, a height not permitted by the Valley Village Specific Plan that governs development in the area. “In order to keep the nursery, we have to put a lot more units on,” said Gary Schaffel, president of Schaffel Development Co., a local Valley builder who is in escrow to purchase the site. “That requires a four-story building.” As it is now zoned, Schaffel can build more than the 96 units he plans on the 82,650-square-foot site. He is amenable to retaining the nursery, albeit on a smaller scale, on the ground floor so long as he doesn’t have to reduce the number of condo units. If he did, the project just wouldn’t pencil out. He has even worked out a design that would keep the height lower on the side of the building that faces other single family residences. But the only way to accommodate the nursery and still build enough units to make the project viable is to go to a four-story building, and that would require an exception to the Specific Plan. “If there’s enough sentiment that they think the nursery is worth saving, I’m happy to go along that way,” Schaffel said. “If the decision comes down on June 8 and is adopted by the Valley Village Neighborhood Council that they will not amend the Specific Plan, they would approve a project for me to do 96 units on the entire site.” The property has been owned jointly by a private investor and the Stevens family that still operates the nursery. But with land prices at an all-time high, the second partner, an individual investor, opted not to renew the Stevens lease, forcing a sale. All but one of the four Stevens brothers that first took over the business from the parents who started it, have passed away, and after struggling with the decision, Jim Stevens, now 88 years old, agreed to the sale. “I think Jim just wanted the family taken care of before he passed away,” said Gary Wagner, who has been general manager of Stevens Nursery for the past 15 years. “It was still a super hard decision for him.” Stevens was not available for comment and the second property owner could not be reached. Stepping in to help In the meantime, a former employee and friend of the Stevens family, Mark Gelfat, stepped in to try and keep the nursery running, albeit in a smaller configuration. He approached Schaffel Development with the idea of acquiring the property and selling back a small portion to him for the nursery. “Mark came to me through a mutual friend and asked if I would be willing to help him purchase the property,” said Schaffel. “We said, yes, we’ll help you tie it up.’ I knew the fallback position was that if we couldn’t make the nursery project work, I could make a condo project over the entire site work.” Now the two alternatives will have to be hashed out in the neighborhood council and planning department. But the employees of Stevens don’t want to leave the decision to chance. “I understand the whole thing with the four stories, and making exceptions to the Specific Plan,” said Wagner. “If you make an exception to one thing you’re opening a can of worms.” But just the fact that we’ve been here 65 years, it’s almost a historical landmark, so we’re just pushing really hard to get them to make an exception.” He has begun a petition drive and to date figures he’s collected several thousand signatures. He’s also been calling some of the store’s more prominent customers Beverly Garland, Ed Begley Jr. and Joan Van Ark among them, to lend their support, especially when the project comes up before the Valley Village Neighborhood Council on June 8. “On June 8 we need to have that room packed full with at least twice as many people outside because they can’t get in,” Wagner said. A number of the Stevens employees have been at the nursery for years some for 20 years. And, Wagner said, Jim Stevens was always a kind and generous boss, even providing personal, no-interest loans when an employee got into financial difficulty. Business has been good, and last year, the nursery’s 30-odd employees shared about $500,000 in bonuses. “So far we’ve had unanimous support,” Wagner said. “Nobody has said I’d rather see the nursery go than have a four story building.”

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