ASL Financial, the Encino firm that for eight months has fought for permission to build a 250,000-square-foot office complex on part of the Northridge Little League's baseball diamonds, announced Wednesday that it was withdrawing the proposal.
Connie Levin, the ASL executive in charge of the project, said it was dropped because of opposition from City Councilman Hal Bernson.
Bernson announced his position last week after concluding that the Little League's use of seven baseball fields was legally assured, regardless of how ASL developed its 24-acre parcel at the corner of Devonshire Street and Wilbur Avenue. Had the project been approved, two of the fields would have been relocated to make room for the office buildings.
The office park suffered another blow Wednesday when the staff of the City Planning Department recommended rejection of the proposed project. The office complex, known as Evergreen Park, was to have come before the Planning Commission on June 22.
Levin said ASL wanted to abide by the wishes of Bernson and the community. "I'm disappointed because I feel, based on these unique circumstances, this plan would have made a lot of sense. It was good for the community and the Little League."
Levin said ASL has not decided what to do with the site's 11 acres not occupied by the Little League. As it is zoned, ASL could build 45 homes on the land, a use the Planning Department endorsed as the most appropriate for the site.
Pat McDonough, a neighborhood resident who opposed the office complex, said homeowners would welcome such a proposal. "We think ASL could do a residential development on the site, and make money on it and preserve the Little League fields," McDonough said. "We would certainly be willing to work with them on that."
Soon after the project was proposed in October, 1988, the Little League--which signed a 15-year lease with ASL in 1987--became the heart of the dispute.
ASL promised to spend $1 million to improve and rearrange the baseball fields so they would serve as a buffer to separate homes to the north from the seven proposed two-story office buildings. The developer also planned to deed the baseball fields to the city if the city agreed to give the Northridge Little League a 99-year lease.
But homeowners, organized as the North Valley Homeowners Federation, argued that a 1987 agreement between ASL and Bernson already guaranteed that the Little League could not be displaced. The agreement gave ASL the right to build additional homes, above zoning limits, on its adjacent land in return for preserving the baseball fields. The homeowners said the Little League was being used to divert attention from such issues as increased traffic and the intrusion of commercial buildings into a residential area.
Each side in the dispute campaigned to build support for its position. ASL hired the Dolphin Group, a Westside political public relations firm that has worked for Gov. George Deukmejian and former President Ronald Reagan, to conduct a direct-mail drive in the neighborhood. The homeowners fought back with lawn signs, bumper stickers and petitions.
The City Planning Department staff's recommendations, on the whole, took the homeowners' side.
The offices would be "an intrusion into a stable . . . neighborhood of single-family homes" on three sides of the proposed project, the planning staff wrote. The project would also have resulted in "an inconsistent and illogical pattern of land uses," with commercial buildings on the north side of Devonshire and homes on the south.
The planning staff also concluded that building offices would add to growing traffic problems in the north San Fernando Valley and would encourage further commercial development in residential areas along Devonshire west of the proposed project.
One Planning Department finding seemed to contradict the conclusion reached by Bernson last week that the Little League's use of its fields was guaranteed. The staff recommendations said that even if the land were given to the city, city Recreation and Parks Department officials "cannot guarantee but are likely to allow" the Little League's continued use of the land.
Recreation and Parks, however, told the planning staff that it would not be willing to reserve the fields for the Little League's sole use.
George Hall, an outspoken advocate both for the Little League and the ASL project, said ASL's decision to drop the project was "really too bad.
"So much good could have been done for these kids, and now it's not going to happen," he said. "We know we're there at least until something else happens. Certainly we're not permanent. I hope the homeowners federation is very happy. They certainly haven't done the youth of Northridge very much good."