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The Village Green, a 60-year-old planned community in Los Angeles with lush lawns and tree-lined paths, is an urban oasis to its residents.

May 21, 2000|DAN GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Flanders used to envy his sister when he'd visit her and her family in their Westwood home.

"They have a sizable house with a backyard in a very nice family-oriented neighborhood," said Flanders, an entertainment-industry professional who was renting a two-bedroom apartment in the Westside community of Palms with his wife, Anne, and their children, Forrest and Saskia.

"I remember wondering whether I would ever be able to afford a place to raise kids where they had so much room and were safe."

The answer came last summer, when the Flanders were told about an unusual planned community just a few miles east of their Palms apartment.

The Village Green sounded too good to be true--a 69-acre complex of 629 condos and bungalows set among vast expanses of lush green grass and beautiful tree-lined walking paths. Parking was confined to the perimeter, leaving the inside of the complex free of traffic and city noise.

And yet, the Village Green was located in the heart of Los Angeles, spanning several city blocks near the intersection of South La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road, in the flats of Baldwin Hills. The community is bounded by Rodeo on the north, Coliseum Street on the south, Sycamore Avenue on the east and Hauser Boulevard on the west.

The Village Green's convenience and serenity also came with a relatively modest price: The Flanders family found a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,580-square-foot townhouse for $171,000.

"Try to find that anywhere else," Flanders said. "It took us about a minute after we saw this place to say, 'Yup.' "

It took Keta Hodgson less than that.

Hodgson, a cardiology research nurse, made up her mind to buy her one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit from a co-worker in 1993 the day the colleague, who was moving out of town, described the Village Green.

"I couldn't imagine that such a place would exist in Los Angeles without my knowing about it," Hodgson recalled, gazing out her living-room window at one of the greenbelts that dominate the view from almost anywhere inside the community. "Seeing all of this open space was breathtaking."

The Village Green was designed in the late 1930s by Los Angeles architects Reginald Johnson and Robert Alexander, in consultation with the renowned architect and city planner Clarence Stein.

Their vision, shaped by the Garden City movement that began in Great Britain in the late 19th century, was to develop a "superblock" of affordable urban housing in an aesthetically pleasing, safe, community-oriented environment in which automobile and pedestrian traffic were separated.

The developers planted nearly 2,000 trees--from sycamores, and elms to the more exotic types--creating an urban forest impenetrable by cars with the buildings connected by pedestrian walkways.

Today the trees are in full sprawl, on grounds that are--no doubt about it--green, save for the camellia and azalea bushes that provide touches of color.

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Baldwin Hills Village, as the Village Green was originally called, opened in 1941. Stein later called the development one of the best realizations of his ideas for American city planning.

The complex has since served as a model for architecture and urban planning students and professionals. In 1993 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Although some 1,500 people live in the Village Green, residents marvel at how unpopulated the grounds seem. On a walk around the complex during the week you're liable to cross paths with only a handful of friendly neighbors out for a stroll or relaxing on one of the park-style benches.

Other times, the only people to be seen are employees of the 24-hour patrol and escort service, the large crew of gardeners tending to the trees and flowers and the occasional resident using the pitch-and-putt golf course on the main lawn.

"In the summer I'll sit out on the green, with this incredible grass and these old-growth trees keeping me cool, and it might be an hour before someone will come walking along," Hodgson said.

For a multiunit development in Southern California, the Village Green has extremely low density, about 10 units per acre, with no building taller than two stories.

The effect is enhanced by the site planning. The units are grouped in 19 courts, which creates room for grassy areas on the interior (the main green and two side greens) and between the courts ("finger greens").

"The clustering leaves a lot of free space for planting, and the landscaping is very well done," said architect Robert Nicolais, a 20-year resident.

Nicolais said he sometimes feels as if his townhouse opens out onto New York's Central Park. "It's a beautiful place to walk around," he said, "just incredibly pleasant."

The Village Green typically attracts residents who cherish that tranquillity. "People aren't using these greens for big picnics," observed Debria Parker of Deloy Edwards Realtor in Ladera Heights.

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