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Seniors Win Stay of Execution for Apartment Complex

December 10, 1987|PHILIPP GOLLNER | Times Staff Writer

Elderly tenants who were threatened with eviction from their Mar Vista apartment complex have been given a one-year reprieve while city officials conduct an environmental impact report on demolition of the buildings.

The order, issued last week by the city Department of Building and Safety, was sought by City Councilman Marvin Braude to delay and possibly halt the demolition, which would force about 120 senior citizens at the Westdale Manor apartments to give up their low-rent units and find new housing.

The apartment complex extends for two blocks along Sawtelle Boulevard south of National Boulevard.

Cindy Miscikowski, Braude's chief deputy, said the study could take up to 1 1/2 years to complete. If the study determines that moving out of the complex would create a significant hardship for the tenants, the city, among other measures, could force the developer to delay the demolition until the current residents have moved out voluntarily or require the developer to move the buildings intact to a new location.

"The first thing we want to do is to slow down the process," Braude told residents at a protest meeting on Dec. 2. "That (an environmental impact report) is the most practical, immediate and direct thing we can do."

Still in Escrow

The property is still in escrow. The developer, R. W. Selby Co. Inc. of Brentwood, has said it plans to buy the land and build at least two 24-foot-high buildings containing 285 luxury units and underground parking.

The tenants were told in September in a letter from the owner, Russell Properties Co., that they would have to move out if the land were sold.

Three-fourths of the 160 tenants are older than 62 and 21% are older than 80, according to Barbara Spark, communications director for the Westdale Manor Tenants Assn. Many of the tenants have debilitating illnesses and cannot move about on their own, she said, while others appreciate the complex's proximity to stores, pharmacies, churches and doctors' offices.

Residents say the complex is an enclosed community where tenants help one another and enjoy an independence that they would not have in a retirement home.

"I don't know what I'd do if I had to move because it's so comfortable, so complete here," said Florence La Gatta, 92, who has lived in the same apartment at the complex since 1951. "I wouldn't know where to start."

Tenant Elsie Morago, 75, said she does not want to move because she is ill and because she wants to be near her son, who has muscular dystrophy and needs constant care.

"I cannot move because I can't leave him," she said. "Without me he has nobody. . . . It seems such an outrageous thing that a man, for a matter of money, should destroy a whole neighborhood."

Terms Not Known

Both R. W. Selby Co. and Russell Properties refused comment and city officials said they do not know the terms of the escrow or when the sale is expected to be completed. The escrow agreement is a private contract not subject to public review or approval, Miscikowski said.

Fred C. Wasson, president of the Westdale Manor Homeowners Assn., said Selby President Richard W. Selby told him last week that the developer has already completed detailed plans for the new buildings and that he expects to close escrow soon.

"He was very serious," Wasson said. "He made a firm statement that he intends to close (escrow) and that he intends to go ahead with the development.'

Although the September letter to tenants promised that Westdale Manor residents would get advance opportunity to rent apartments in the new building, few tenants could afford the higher rents, Spark said. Rents at Westdale Manor average about $400 a month, she said, $200 to $300 less than the market rate for comparable one-bedroom apartments in the area.

The city's rent control ordinance requires property owners to pay tenants age 62 or older $5,000 each when an apartment building is torn down, but Spark said these payments would be insufficient.

"They won't be able to find something this nice for $800" a month, she said. "They can't afford it. They can't afford it even for $600."

In seeking an environmental impact report on the possible demolition, Braude is taking advantage of a recent California Supreme Court decision requiring the reports for any project that may have a significant effect on the environment.

Mayoral Order

As a result of the decision, Mayor Tom Bradley in July ordered the Department of Building and Safety to require environmental reviews of all large commercial and residential projects before issuing building permits. A City Council vote on an ordinance requiring such environmental reports is expected soon, Miscikowski said.

The proposal to demolish Westdale Manor would be one of the first instances in Los Angeles in which an environmental review would be required before issuing a demolition permit, Braude said.

Demolition of Westdale Manor would further erode the city's declining stock of affordable housing, speakers at Wednesday's meeting said.

Analysts say that while high-priced luxury apartments have mushroomed on the Westside over the last several years, few affordable units have been built to replace the older buildings destroyed to make room for the more expensive projects.

In addition, they say, affluent young people have been taking advantage of lower interest rates to buy homes rather than pay rents in luxury apartments that were planned when interest rates were higher. As a result, many high-priced apartments remain vacant while demand for affordable units far outstrips the available stock.

"Your fight is a fight for affordable housing," Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, told residents at the gathering. "There's an epidemic here and it has to be stopped."

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