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Out of the Rubble

Warner Center is best known as the office hub of the San Fernando Valley, but now a developer is trying to build several hundred apartments in the district. Dinerstein Cos. has demolished the former home of movie camera maker Panavision Inc. at the corner of De Soto Avenue and Erwin Street, clearing the way for development of an upscale apartment building. The complex will add to an increasing number of multifamily units in the area – in line with development trends nationwide, while office construction remains at a crawl. “The banks are throwing money at developers and investors for this sort of property right now,” said Warren Berzack, principal at Lee & Associates – L.A. North/Ventura who specializes in multifamily investment properties. The project began with REW De Soto Partners LLC, a Malibu company affiliated with developer Richard Weintraub, in 2002. But REW decided in March to sell off the project to Dinerstein, a Houston company that specializes in student and multifamily apartment developments. Originally, REW planned to build 707 units with 395 at market rate and 312 for seniors, but when the sale closed in April Dinerstein said it would only proceed with the market-rate units. REW De Soto has retained an option to reacquire 3 acres of the 11-acre parcel and complete the senior apartments. The project has drawn mixed reviews from neighborhood advocates. Some support it – and some worry that more housing projects without added commercial space could hurt the West Valley’s employment base. “I think most in the community would agree that a balanced mix of housing and commercial development in Warner Center is essential to its future,” said Dennis DiBiase, co-chairman of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council’s planning, land-use and mobility committee. “The priority, though, is Warner Center should continue to be an employment center serving the West Valley and the adjacent communities,” he added. “We need to provide employment opportunities close to where people live.” Retaining walls Dinerstein declined to comment on the project, but the company has been under pressure to move forward rapidly. Weintraub’s company had building permits for the project that were due to expire this past summer, forcing Dinerstein to start work before Panavision moved out in August to a building just around the corner on Variel Street. “They began working on some small things – like a retaining wall and parking area,” said John Battles, principal at Lee & Associates – L.A. North/Ventura office, who represented both sides in the deal. “It was work that needed to be done, but they had to start work right away in order to keep the permits in place.” Currently, the industrial building has been demolished, and work has continued daily to clear the concrete rubble as grading for the pending project begins. While Dinerstein has been tight-lipped about the design of the apartments, it has completed several similar projects recently, including an apartment complex on Kittridge Street in Woodland Hills last year. At that property, amenities include black pearl countertops, a gym, pool and tanning beds. One-bedroom units rent for $1,500 a month. The company, which has built more than 150,000 apartments in 26 states, sold the 438-unit complex for nearly $133 million to a joint venture of Wesco LLP and Essex Property Trust Inc. in July of last year. The joint venture, headquartered in Palo Alto with an office in Woodland Hills, continues to operate the complex, which is 94 percent leased. Meanwhile, looming ahead is a potential battle over the future of Warner Center. Jobs, housing balance The city’s Planning Commission is poised at a Nov. 29 hearing to advance a new Warner Center Specific Plan to the City Council that will guide development through 2035. The nearly 300-page plan was developed in cooperation with the Community Advisory Committee and calls for a balance of new development between housing and commercial construction to provide jobs. In fact, development projects must include both elements. Brad Rosenheim, a land-use expert at Woodland Hills firm Rosenheim & Associates, and vice chair of the advisory committee, said the goal is to create a walking neighborhood with easy access to housing, jobs and shopping. “One of the ideal scenarios is to create a balance of work and housing,” he said. “Whether it’s walking home, to work or to an amenity, we need to capitalize on that plan.” Some 19,000 new residences are projected under the specific plan, but exactly how much commercial development will be part of any individual development will be determined project by project. Much of the housing is expected in multifamily developments, which for some area stakeholders is just right. “We are requesting, we are permitting, we are asking for this type of development,” said Scott Silverstein, chairman of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council. “We want people to stay here, live here, work here. And that only works if there’s housing for them.”

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