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Saturday, Feb 4, 2023

Match Point

In its Cold War heyday, the Boeing Fitness Center in West Hills represented the pinnacle of corporate largess. Just south of the Chatsworth Reservoir, the 8500 Fallbrook Ave. property was purchased in 1959 by the aerospace giant and developed as a private club where workers could bring their families and temporarily escape the pressures of the space race. The 14-acre employee playground featured three swimming pools, multiple tennis, volleyball and basketball courts and an auditorium with room for more than 100 couples to swirl across its dance floor. But by the time it closed in October 2010, the gated property had become the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Fitness Center – a place more likely to host union retiree meetings and senior exercise classes than swanky parties. And more recently, the abandoned property doubled as the forlorn remains of a post-apocalyptic Tucson in the Fox Broadcasting Co.’s TV show, “The Last Man on Earth.” Sometime later this year, however, another transformation will take place on the site, as construction begins on 90 single-family homes called The Oaks at West Hills. California Home Builders, a division of Evenhaim Industries Corp. in Canoga Park, purchased the property from Boeing North American Fitness Inc. of Seal Beach in May 2013 for an undisclosed price and won city approval in April for the development. “This is probably the largest (single-family residential) project that’s going to be developed in the West Valley in the next few years,” said Shawn Evenhaim, founder and chief executive of the development company. The subdivision would consist of one- and two-story detached homes with two- and three-car garages, ranging from 1,500 to 3,500 square feet each. The four- and five-bedroom homes are expected to be priced between $400,000 and $900,000 to attract a wide range of buyers. They also will be entirely modern, with rooftop solar panels, smart lighting and appliances that can be controlled from mobile phones. California Home Builders will construct and sell the homes, with demolition set to begin within the next few months. Project costs have not been disclosed. While several single-family home developments are under construction in the Santa Clarita Valley, it is rare to see such a large single-family development in the densely populated and mostly built-out San Fernando Valley. More common are infill projects like the 132-unit, small-lot subdivision that KB Home plans to construct in Van Nuys at the site of a former Pinecrest Elementary school – or the host of multifamily condominium and apartment projects under construction. One large project is in the planning stages, though it has been downsized more than a decade after it was first announced. Forestar Real Estate Group Inc., a joint venture of Foremost Communities Inc. in Newport Beach and Starwood Capital Group Global LP in Greenwich, Conn. has submitted plans for a 188-unit luxury home project at the former Deerlake Ranch, a 230-acre hillside parcel just west of Porter Ranch. Even if approved, construction is likely several years away. Kathy King, an Encino residential broker and Los Angeles regional vice president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, said new-home developments in the Valley have been practically non-existent in recent years. “Honestly, I can’t even think of a brand-new project of 90 homes going up in – forever,” she said. “If there’s any new construction at all, it’s a couple of homes here or there. There’s been nothing on this scale recently, other than some large condo projects.” Big tract Boeing began marketing the property in 2012 and drew offers from multiple developers because of the size of the parcel and the fact that it largely consists of open space, since the fitness center buildings occupy only a small portion of the site. “Any development company would want to own a parcel like that. The reason Boeing selected us is that they knew we were local builders with 20 years’ experience in the West Valley,” Evenhaim said. Boeing officials did not return calls for comment on the May 2013 transaction. After it acquired the property, California Home Builders began meeting with community members and local stakeholders, conducting a total of nine feedback sessions. “Some people were very vocal about what they did not want: senior housing or tall buildings or multifamily. There were many issues we worked through before we came up with the 90 single-family homes,” Evenhaim said. After taking neighbors’ concerns into account, the developer brought his plans before the Planning and Zoning Committee of the West Hills Neighborhood Council last year. Bill Rose, the committee’s chairman, said that by the time Evenhaim appeared at a hearing last year, the committee members had already heard worries from locals that a dense multifamily project would just add to the already heavy traffic in the area. So when the plans for a traditional subdivision were presented to the committee, the reaction was positive. “There was no significant opposition. We’ve worked with Shawn for years and we know he does good work,” Rose said. The Neighborhood Council recommended approval and the city’s Planning Commission approved it in April. Valley developer California Home Builders was established in 1994, when Evenhaim began doing high-end custom homebuilding in a market limited by recession. By the late 1990s, he said, his firm had acquired some land parcels and begun building small, mostly infill projects in the Valley. By last decade, the company was doing larger projects, setting itself apart from other developers by taking a parcel from entitlement through to construction and sales. “Very rarely will we sell a project to another developer,” Evenhaim said. The 30-employee firm ranked seventh in the most recent Los Angeles Business Journal list of residential developers, with more than 159 homes sold at an average price of $512,500 last year in Los Angeles County. It has multiple residential projects ongoing in Valley communities including Van Nuys, Sylmar and Canoga Park. One notable development is a 232-unit multifamily project on a 3.2-acre parcel on the west side of the former Panavision headquarters in Warner Center. California Home Builders acquired the property at Variel Avenue and Erwin Street from REW De Soto Partners late last year for an undisclosed price. Movie camera maker Panavision left the property and moved to smaller offices on Variel Avenue in 2012. The multifamily project is not expected to be completed for a few years, but homes at the Boeing site should become available starting in about a year. It’s likely that residential home market conditions at that time will remain favorable for the developer, with prices largely recovered from the 2007 housing crisis and subsequent recession. In April, median home prices in the San Fernando Valley hit a post-recession high of $555,000 and there was a 2.1-month supply of housing on the market. Typically, a six-month supply is needed to balance the market between buyers and sellers. Steve Katz, Studio City branch manager at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, said there is likely to be strong interest in the new homes once they are completed. “There is still great demand for new construction and it is harder to find in this area. If this is at a price point that will sell, it’s a good thing,” he said. Recreational legacy While the old fitness center was a private facility not open to the public, many longtime Valley residents who worked for Boeing or had friends who did have fond memories of spending summers swimming there, going to birthday parties or attending exercise classes on the grounds. A rocket-shaped jungle gym on the playground became something of a local landmark. But retired postal employee Lauren Oberhansley, who lives near the property, recalled that the club had an exclusive air and wasn’t particularly neighborhood-friendly. “The ladies who acted as receptionists would not even allow the letter carriers to use the bathroom facilities,” she said. After the center closed, she and others hoped that it might be turned into a community asset, perhaps as a senior center, summer camp for kids or membership-based fitness center. “It’s always made me sad that nothing could be done to work together with the company that owned those facilities. It could have been a place where (neighborhood) families could get to know each other,” she said. By this fall, the crumbling tennis courts, dance floor and empty swimming pools at the former fitness center are likely to be gone, with grading for the new-home development starting late this year. In public hearings for the project, no one asked that the property’s former use be memorialized. “It was a private country club, so no one in the community raised the idea of putting up a marker and there’s nothing of significance there architecturally,” Evenhaim said. But the idea of recreation will be carried on in one way: A 15,000-square-foot space in the new home tract will be set aside for use as a public park. “I’m happy that we’re doing that there,” he said.

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