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Park at Center of Turf Battle

Neighbors in Space-Short West Hollywood Fight a Plan to Build a Housing ComplexDespite Promises That Some of the Greenery Wil Be Saved

June 11, 1996|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city, a nook of trees and flowers where the air seems almost still. But this peaceful hideaway in West Hollywood also lies at the center of a political storm.

The West Hollywood Community Housing Corp. wants to turn this patch of private property on Kings Road into a low-income housing complex for families and senior citizens. But those who live nearby contend that the project will destroy a verdant refuge that is home to giant bird of paradise plants, a rare ginkgo tree and a sprawling 150-year-old oak.

"It's the last green oasis on the street. It's a crime to destroy it," Kings Road resident Inge Servi said of the property, which is about the size of three basketball courts. "It's such a beautiful place and there are so few [parks] left."

Neighborhood leaders, who also object to the size and height of the proposed housing project, are waging an aggressive campaign to turn the site into a city park. The activists are lobbying the city's five council members, three of whom say they endorse the idea.

The site, about a block from City Hall, would become the fourth park in West Hollywood, where residents often bemoan the absence of open space.

Officials at the housing corporation, which owns the property, contend that the development plans will protect trees and other greenery. According to blueprints, the housing complex would spare nearly two-thirds of the existing vegetation.

"We are absolutely committed to a design which preserves the oak, the ginkgo and several of the other significant trees on the site," said Paul Zimmerman, the agency's executive director.

As a result of the community uproar, the housing corporation has withdrawn its original plans from city consideration and is now thinking of building a smaller project than it had originally envisioned. Among other changes, the agency may lower the four-story height and reduce the number of units.

The agency's managers also are planning to meet with city leaders in hopes of salvaging support for the project.

"We are committed to affordable housing on the site," said Anson Snyder, president of the housing corporation's board of directors. "We'll continue to work with the neighbors and with the City Council to address their concerns."

Some city leaders say they have little interest in any new plans.

"The project may be dead on arrival at this point," Councilman Steve Martin said. "I don't see this project going forward unless it's downsized considerably."

Martin and Mayor Paul Koretz held a news conference at the site last week to raise concerns about the project. Along with Councilman Sal Guarriello, they have endorsed the idea of converting the property into a park, but other city leaders question whether West Hollywood can afford the yet-to-be determined cost.

"It's just not in our plan right now," said Councilwoman Abbe Land. "There's tons of questions: Who's going to use the park? How big will it possibly be? I think the neighbors have very legitimate concerns, but I'd like to see if they can sit down with this developer and come up with a project that meets their concerns."

The housing corporation, which has built five low-income complexes in West Hollywood since it opened its doors in 1986, is accustomed to neighborhood concerns. But agency officials say they were surprised by the level of controversy generated by the Kings Road development.

The agency had anticipated strong city support for the project after the City Council approved a $400,000 loan in January to buy the property.

But opposition began to swell on Kings Road in March after the housing corporation introduced its plans at a neighborhood meeting.

"It was given out to the public as being a done deal," recalled Jim Rudolph, a Kings Road resident. "I think that's when people got angry. We felt like we had no voice."

As a result of the meeting, residents formed the Kings Road Area Coalition and vowed to fight the project.

They had no shortage of complaints.

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Many contended that the project would damage trees and other greenery. Others called the complex too dense and bulky for the area. Still others questioned whether enough parking would be available to keep cars off an already crowded street.

A few objected to the notion of low-income housing rising amid their neat buildings. They feared that such development would depress property values on a street lined with sleek condominiums. Less than two blocks away, they argued, are two other publicly subsidized housing projects, both for senior citizens.

The housing corporation's Snyder called the neighborhood fears unfounded and said the agency's other low-income projects in West Hollywood have blended easily into their neighborhoods.

Still, Snyder sought to strike a conciliatory tone.

"The board [of directors] is willing to go out and meet with the neighbors," he said. " . . . We pride ourselves on being good neighbors."

Snyder and other housing advocates said the Kings Road project would help serve a growing need for affordable housing in West Hollywood. Nearly 350 people already are on the housing corporation's waiting list, and the Kings Road project would accommodate about 100 of them, he said.

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