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Par for the Course?

After nearly 15 years of planning and discussion, the battle over the fate of one of the last remaining open spaces along the L.A. River is back for another round. The Weddington family is proposing to build 200 senior condos on a portion of the Weddington Golf and Tennis complex in Studio City – land it has owned for more than a century. The project, dubbed the Studio City Senior Living Center, would redevelop only about a fourth of the 16-acre property at 4141 Whitsett Ave., demolishing the tennis courts and leaving the nine-hole golf course, driving range and clubhouse in place. But the portion of the land the family wants to develop abuts the L.A. River, and with the city pushing to revitalize the river into a plush urban oasis, some residents aren’t pleased. Save L.A. River Open Space, a spinoff of the Studio City Resident’s Association, would even like to raise money to buy the entire property and create a natural wetland habitat. “The biggest issue here is that this is the last open space on the river in the San Fernando Valley and we’d lose it,” said Alan Dymond, president of the river group. “There would be a ton of traffic and pollution too. It’s the wrong place for this.” Stiff opposition from the residents could make for a long development fight over the land, which has been the site of three other stalled proposals. The family’s Weddington Golf and Tennis LLC of North Hollywood development entity would need to get an environmental impact report approved, a zoning change and discretionary project approval from the City Council. The process will likely take several years. Michael C. Murphy, a Burbank attorney working for the Weddington family, said the pushback from opponents will be addressed but the family wants to move forward and strongly believes in the project. “They have a right to develop their property. They just have to do it responsibly. If there’s something we missed, we’ll address it in the process. But we’ll address any concern other than ‘Gee, I don’t like it,’” he said. “This is the right project. It addresses all the needs of the community. It’s being catered to a unique set of individuals that need a place to live.” First family According to historical reports, the Weddington family came out to the Valley in 1891, dragging a farm house all the way from Iowa. The house, which became a city historic monument, ended up in what is now North Hollywood, where the family has a street named in its honor. It also donated land for North Hollywood Park. “The Weddingtons have been in the community for years. In fact, they’re the founding family of North Hollywood and they’re great members of this community,” Murphy said. “This isn’t some outside developer with plans that don’t make sense.” The family opened the golf course in 1955 for public use, though the site was zoned for medium density residential and low density residential at the time. Then in 1971, the L.A. City Council agreed to change the property zoning to agricultural as a way to provide a tax benefit to the family and retain the course. But according to a draft EIR, the family sought a change in 2000 to develop the property. The earliest iteration of the project included possible removal of the golf course, tennis courts and development of single-family homes. An alternate version with senior housing units was proposed in 2001, including development of 240 senior housing units and removal of the tennis courts. But the plan was postponed and reconfigured to address environmental and community concerns, and to allow for the construction of a fire station on 1 acre of the site, which the city purchased for $5 million about a decade ago. In 2007, a new plan called for eliminating the golf course, reconfiguring the driving range, relocating the tennis courts and increasing the number of senior units to 272 – but that fizzled out amid the housing bust and recession. Now, the latest plan retains all the golf amenities but eliminates the tennis courts, replacing them with six, four-story buildings for 336,000 square feet of total development. The 4.5-acre development site also includes 613 underground parking spaces, with a portion accessible to golf course patrons, according to the draft EIR. The buildings would be a mix of 136 two-bedroom and 64 one-bedroom condos, with an architectural style featuring clay tile roofing, painted shutters, wrought iron balcony balusters and facades treated with a combination of cultured stone, cement plaster and glass. Residents would have to be 55 years or older. Jeff Louks, senior vice president at the Encino office of Marcus & Millichap Inc., said he expects there would be substantial demand for the units. “A lot of buyers call me interested in senior housing deals. I think it’s a good plan. There are not a lot of large projects like that in the Valley, especially senior units,” he said. “There’s always going to be opposition, but politically this is different. It’s senior housing.” But the Save L.A. River non-profit has other ideas for the property, bounded by Valley Spring Lane to the north, the L.A. River right-of-way to the south, Bellaire Avenue to the west and Whitsett Avenue to the east. The group would like to convert much of the property into the L.A. River Natural Park, which would serve as open space for trails and water runoff, where dirty water from 200 surrounding acres would be captured, cleaned and reused. The group said it would create a natural habitat that would be solar powered, leaving the tennis courts and driving range but not the golf course. Laurie Cohn, vice president of the group, acknowledged there would be big demand for senior housing, especially with an adjacent golf course. But she said her group opposed any “building replacing open space” next to the L.A. River, which further south in an 11-mile stretch from Elysian Park to downtown is the subject of a $1 billion city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revitalization plan that focuses on green space and restoration. However, the group would need to raise about $80 million – perhaps from private donations, land trusts or public agencies – based on the amount the city paid for the fire department property. Cohn said she has heard a similar figure for the price of the land and acknowledged it would be very hard to raise such a sum. “We’ve been trying to raise money for 15 years with the mind to buy this, but it’s been wholly unsuccessful. We started a fund, but it’s negligible,” she said. Tom Stemnock, president of Planning Associates Inc. of Studio City, the consultant working on the draft EIR for the Weddington family, called plans for a nature park hypocritical because it would also require demolition and new use for the land. “For some reason, when we want to develop senior properties, losing the recreational space is abhorred by the community,” he said. “But if it’s for the park they want, losing all of it is acceptable. In my mind, it’s just been a strategy for the local community associations to maintain a status quo.” Lengthy process However, not everyone in the community is necessarily opposed to the development. John Walker, president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, said though he has concerns over the loss of open space, the development could be far more dense. “They’re asking for 200 units. The reality is they could ask for three times that,” he said. “It looks as though they’re trying to appease a community that they know doesn’t want any building at all.” However, he stressed that the Neighborhood Council, which will have to make a formal recommendation on the project to the Planning Board, is only beginning to review the proposal and has not yet taken an official stance. L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents the area, said in an email that he understands resident concerns and intends to closely evaluate the entitlement process. “The proposed redevelopment of Weddington Golf and Tennis has been an issue of debate in Studio City for years. People have very strong feelings about it,” he wrote. “Now that a specific proposal is being studied, everyone deserves a chance to weigh in on its potential impact to the neighborhood.” Already, Krekorian has asked the city planning department to extend the public comment period on the draft EIR from the customary 45 days to 60 days. The deadline is now Sept. 30. After that, it could be several years before the ultimate fate of the land is decided. The final EIR on the project would likely be released in about a year, followed by review of the project by the L.A. Planning Department. After all that, and various public hearings in between each step, the planning board would make a recommendation to the L.A. City Council, which would have to make the ultimate decision. Stemnock, the consultant, said the family is prepared for what is surely a long process ahead, with building no earlier than 2017 as a best-case scenario. “We know the entitlements will be controversial,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for more than 10 years. We’re in for the long haul.”

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