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Spielberg Revamps Riding Ring

Development: In response to neighbors' protests, director scales back his plan to build an elaborate equestrian center in Brentwood.

August 01, 2001|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's Take 2 for director Steven Spielberg and actress Kate Capshaw's efforts to build an elaborate horse ring in a quiet, tony Brentwood neighborhood.

After an outcry from neighbors in December, Hollywood's most successful filmmaker and his wife scrapped plans for a five-story, 27,000-square-foot domed equestrian center and accompanying housing that would have required six city zoning variances.

In its place, the Spielbergs plan a scaled-back outdoor ring on the 2.8-acre property that they hope to break ground on late next month. Unlike their first effort, this one is getting favorable reviews from neighborhood critics and would require no special action by Los Angeles zoning officials.

"This time around, they've substantially scaled down the project and notified the property owners as to what they are doing and are being reasonably cooperative in the process," said Henry Gradstein, a lawyer who lives on a ridge overlooking the Spielbergs' property.

Neighbors, including Gradstein, originally complained that the massive proposed equestrian facility was out of line with the low-key, rustic Sullivan Canyon. The area's historic, single-story, California ranch-style homes with split-rail fences and horse corrals on large lots are nestled along tree-lined streets with no sidewalks.

Forced to go back to the drawing board, Spielberg hired a new project manager, William T. McGregor, owner of a small Century City development company, to work with architect Michael Kovac in coming up with something that better fit the neighborhood.

The biggest difference in the revised project is the riding ring itself. While still a hefty 24,000 square feet, gone is the airport hangar-like structure with a retractable roof that caused land use lawyer John Murdock to dub Spielberg's plans "astounding and obnoxious." That building was about six times the size of a typical house in the area and would have taken up more than half the playing field if plopped inside the Rose Bowl.

Now, the plan simply has an outdoor riding ring on a dirt pad, with fewer stables than originally planned.

Also gone is a three-story guardhouse and a 2,400-square-foot "bunkhouse" or main residence. The guardhouse would have had a full kitchen for the property caretakers.

And an imposing 8-foot-high sliding gate planned for the entrance to the property has been scaled back to 6 feet high.

"We tried as much as possible to deal with their concerns, and retool or eliminate whatever aspects of the project were cause for concern," said Andy Spahn, a senior executive with DreamWorks SKG, the studio where Spielberg is a partner with music mogul David Geffen and former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Spielberg bought the Brentwood property, once owned by late actor Dane Clark, in 1999 for $5.75 million, setting out to build the project for horse lover Capshaw. The couple live nearby in Pacific Palisades. The original cost of Spielberg's equestrian project was estimated at $7 million. McGregor said the cost of the revised project is less, but declined to specify by how much.

In early January, facing what had quickly evolved into a public outcry after his plans were disclosed by The Times, Spielberg withdrew his zoning application, which included a request that the riding ring structure be 54 feet high--18 feet above the legal limit.

Nearby homeowners, including Hollywood movie producer Brian Grazer and television producer Roger Gimbel, had strongly objected. They retained lawyer Murdock to fight the plans out of fear that the project could lower their property values, harm the environment, and increase noise and traffic in the area.

After being hired by Spielberg, McGregor met individually with a half dozen or so disgruntled neighbors.

The residents, McGregor noted, were most concerned about the retractable roof, the three-story guardhouse near the front of the property and the effect the project would have on the hillside's geological and soil conditions.

McGregor said his challenge was to "come up with a project that met the owner's objectives and at the same time was compatible through the eyes of the community."

The developer said he has already received city approval for the two-for-one removal and replacement of four oak trees and the relocation of four additional oak trees on the property.

McGregor said he is still awaiting building permits and hopes to break ground in late September, with an expected construction period of 15 to 18 months.

Neighbors say they are satisfied with the new plans.

Gimbel, who lives next door to the Spielberg property on a cul-de-sac in Sullivan Canyon, had been an outspoken critic. Now, he said, he's calmed.

"I've stopped screaming for right now," Gimbel said. "I'm greatly encouraged by the enormous improvements over what they had. Is it my dream come true that I have a riding ring as my next-door neighbor? No. But, I appreciate they did something about it."

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