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Valley Perspective

Scrutiny Without Wrath

April 12, 1998

One of the longest, costliest and nastiest land-use fights in Los Angeles history threatens to erupt again as developers of Warner Ridge toy with the idea of changing their project from commercial to residential. Generally, such a switch would be greeted with cheers from neighbors who fear the extra traffic commercial buildings bring. But in the decade of dispute surrounding Warner Ridge, neighbors have learned to look at any new proposals for the site just west of Pierce College with suspicious eyes.

Los Angeles lost a legal fight over the land after the City Council changed the property's zoning in 1988 to thwart development plans that included commercial space. Neighbors wanted single-family homes. But courts ruled that the council could not arbitrarily monkey with zoning designations and ordered the council to reconsider the project. By that time, though, the real estate market had tanked and the project's major tenant backed out. In 1996, developer Jerry Katell revived plans for a 690,000-square-foot commercial center and a few dozen apartments.

Officially, nothing has changed. That's still the project Katell has in mind. The apartments already have won City Council approval. All Katell wants now is the flexibility that would allow him to build 470 luxury townhomes instead of the office towers. It's a smart strategy. Despite recent gains in both commercial and residential real estate, the market remains volatile. Having the option to change plans quickly promises to keep the project--in whatever form--alive.

Either project would work on the site, which sits on the outskirts of the Warner Center commercial district. Office buildings would complement existing towers in Warner Center. Townhomes would provide a nice transition between the neighborhoods of single-family homes to the east and the business district to the west. Of course, some neighbors would like the land left vacant or used for large single-family homes. But providing a public park or building big houses to boost neighboring property values is not the responsibility of a private property owner.

Landowners have a right to develop their land without being subjected to unreasonable restrictions--the major point of the original Warner Ridge lawsuit. That said, neighbors and city officials should have a say in what gets built on Warner Ridge. As Woodland Hills Homeowner Organization President Gordon Murley pointed out, no community should be forced to take projects that don't improve it. Carefully designed and professionally executed, either a commercial project or a townhome community would be a benefit to Woodland Hills. Both deserve scrutiny, but neither should inspire the kind of wrath that has haunted projects on Warner Ridge.

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