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Dwellers of Once-Sleepy Canyon Awake to Urban Ills

July 15, 1990|KENNETH J. GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For several decades, Coldwater Canyon has served as a wooded refuge from the urban chaos of Los Angeles, a place where coyotes stalk prey minutes from where shoppers stalk bargains.

The rugged canyon area, stretching from Beverly Hills to Studio City, has acted as a buffer to the traffic, smog, development and crime that choke the streets below. Affluent residents have enjoyed privacy and quiet in their gracious hillside estates costing $1 million and up.

But in recent years, the big-city blues have seeped into the canyon. Traffic has worsened as harried commuters have looked for alternative routes to the bottlenecked freeways. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, and developers have pursued plans to build on every available hillside acre. One builder flattened two mountain ridges, graded 23 acres and cut down two dozen oak trees on Lania Lane for a huge private estate that has yet to be built.

Then, after years of silence, the residents of the sleepy canyon roared. Inspired by the near-fatal car accident last July of real estate executive Elaine Young and a flurry of development activity, residents finally decided to fight back.

It took Young and her fiance, Jonathan Besdine, just three weeks to organize the Coldwater Canyon Homeowners Assn. More than 300 canyon residents gathered Monday at the Harvard School in Studio City to voice their objections to a panel of Westside politicians--a group very willing to listen to the complaints of well-heeled constituents.

What City Councilman Michael Woo, Beverly Hills Mayor Allan Alexander, representatives of Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) heard was a veritable wish list for a new and improved canyon.

The residents want more police and fire protection. They want hazardous dry brush cleared from the hillsides. They want speed bumps, stoplights and anything else that would make Coldwater Canyon Drive less appealing as an alternative to freeways. They want traffic studies performed to find ways to ease the rush-hour congestion.

But mostly, they want action.

On Wednesday, they got some. Two developers seeking city planning approval for access roads to their adjoining subdivision projects just south of Mulholland Drive abruptly dropped their requests after learning of the homeowners' opposition. One of them, a high-profile, 72-acre gated estate development being planned by Stan Herman and Associates Inc., has been targeted by the group as a potential environmental threat.

The group has hired land-use attorney John B. Murdock to push for a supplemental environmental impact report on the project, which has already received city approval. The environmental study on the project was completed in 1981, and members of the homeowners association say the report is sorely out of date, especially in light of all the development in the area during the past decade.

Stephen Shapiro, a partner with Stan Herman, said the developer plans to proceed with the project for 12 gated estates "in a very conscious and environmental fashion." He said no determination has been made as to whether the lots would be sold individually or whether Herman would sell the entire plot to another developer. He added that the development could have been much larger, saying that "12 units was a major compromise."

But association members contend that the battle is just beginning.

"We're not trying to stop the project, but we're just trying to make sure that they don't do what other developers have done here and destroy the hillsides," said Besdine, president of the new homeowners group. "We have to set a precedent here to prevent developers . . . from doing massive projects. We're saying that what has been going on up here has got to stop before there is no canyon to protect."

Police have also responded to their demands. Capt. Vance Proctor, head of the West Los Angeles traffic division of the Los Angeles Police Department, said patrols in the area will be stepped up during the next two weeks to crack down on speeders.

"It will take a long time to solve the problems . . . in Coldwater Canyon, but enforcement is the key," Proctor told the homeowners gathered Monday night.

After hearing the response, Young, a partner with the real estate firm Alvarez, Hyland & Young, said she wished she had organized canyon residents sooner. It was her accident last July, in which her neck was broken in a head-on collision with a drunk driver as she returned to her Coldwater Canyon house, that triggered her desire to unite the homeowners.

"After a while, I realized that this was ridiculous, more people are going to get killed," said Young, who has recovered fully from her injuries. "So I sent out invitations to neighbors for a cocktail party, thinking that about 50 people would show up, and more than 200 came. That's when I realized people were desperate for this.

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