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Country Comforts : Tarzana's Melody Acres retains some of Valley's wide-open, rural past

September 01, 1996|DAN GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Dan Gordon is a Culver City free-lance writer

Beth Nelson was welcomed to the Melody Acres neighborhood of Tarzana eight years ago by some unusual well-wishers.

"The first thing in the morning I heard this noise," she recalled. "I look out the window and there's a guy walking six of his goats down the street. Big goats, too!"

Described by one resident as "the country in the city," eclectic Melody Acres--where $150,000 fixer-uppers abut $600,000 estates and everyone owns large lots--might be the only neighborhood within a stone's throw of a Starbucks and Baby Gap where the scene Nelson described would barely turn most residents' heads.

In 1988, Nelson and her husband, Greg (both are 41; she sells real estate, and he's an architect), traded in their property in well-to-do Pacific Palisades for a $250,000 three-bedroom three-bath 2,600-square-foot ranch-style home that sits on a half-acre lot on Oxnard Street. The Nelsons--who have a 9-year-old daughter, four cats, three dogs, a pig and plenty of room to spare--haven't looked back.

"I wanted open space," Beth Nelson explained. "I wanted to open the doors and have kids and animals running all over the place."

Situated in the southwest San Fernando Valley, Melody Acres (the neighborhood lore is that it was named for one of its early residents, a singing cowboy) encompasses nearly 300 homes in the area from the Ventura Freeway on the south to Topham Street on the north and from Tampa Avenue on the east to Corbin Avenue on the west.

Although two generations of development have left few remnants of the Valley's wide-open, rural-tinted roots, Melody Acres has remained relatively unchanged, bringing to mind what many view as an idyllic past.

"You have to go back to the 1950s to get a sense of what that neighborhood is like," said Jackie Keane, field deputy to L.A. Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the area.

"Residential agricultural" zoning ensures that each homeowner's lot is a minimum of 17,500 square feet, with wide clearances between houses. The streets lack sidewalks, curbs and gutters. Trees abound and vegetation grows wild. The smell of horses is easily detected. Roosters provide complimentary wake-up service.

"You'd never know you were in the city," said Candace-Marie Rumenapp, an agent with Century 21 Vic Harvey Realtors who has sold houses in the area for 20 years. "The types of people who love it are those who value privacy and that country feel, which reminds them of their childhood."

"This area has changed a lot less than other parts of the Valley," said longtime resident Donna Johnson. When she and her husband, Larry, paid $32,000 for their three-bedroom two-bath home on Shirley Avenue in 1960, the Ventura Freeway had only recently been completed and traffic was nonexistent. Just to the west, corn fields and orange groves were a fixture.

The Johnsons remember talking with neighbors who in the 1940s had used their property as a getaway from the city, pitching a tent there on weekends.

Once the homes were similarly modest in size, but so many residents have put their spacious lots to so many different uses that a typical Melody Acres house has become nearly impossible to find.

Some neighborhood old-timers have left their 800-square-foot homes intact for decades; others, particularly the young families who have bought in recent years, have built up and out. A three-bedroom one-bath house on Shirley Avenue recently sold for $168,500; just a few houses down on the same street, a four-bedroom three-bath home went for $369,000. Each is on a half-acre lot.

There are modern houses with tennis courts and pools alongside country-style ranches; homes with carefully manicured park-like yards and white picket fences adjacent to unkempt eyesores. At times, the view from the street can be misleading. "What's on the other side of a house will shock you--for both good and bad," said one resident, still shaking her head over her discovery of the collection of World War II weaponry one neighbor keeps.

Melody Acres has retained its country feel thanks to the diligence of its residents, who are well organized and quick to fight zoning changes that would enable developers to subdivide the half-acre-plus lots.

Or perhaps Melody Acres has remained relatively untouched by the changes around it because few people know about it. Although Ventura Boulevard bustles just to the south, no one would have reason to drive along the streets that constitute Melody Acres other than the people who live there.

"People will call me and say, 'We've lived in Tarzana for years, and we didn't know the area existed until there was construction and we had to take this side road,' " Rumenapp said.

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