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2 Sides Take Their Swings On Golf, Tennis Club's Fate

Controversy: Owners of Studio City site want to sell '50s-era center to a developer, but others say the 17 acres of greenery shouldn't be touched.

July 01, 2001|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It all started with Great Uncle Fred.

Half a century ago, the stubborn old banker had a mind to rent out the family farm. A rather bad deal in retrospect: $1,000 a month, regardless of inflation, for 50 years.

That choice chunk of San Fernando Valley real estate is now the Studio City Golf and Tennis Club, a 17-acre spread still owned by Fred Weddington's great-nephew and other relatives. And with the lease soon to expire and the Weddingtons determined to sell the land to a developer, it's also the site of one of the fiercest land squabbles this swanky suburb has ever seen.

The developer, Homeplace Retirement Communities of America, hopes to build a 240-unit housing complex and a health-care center for senior citizens on the site. But for many who have grown up swinging golf clubs and tennis rackets on the site, any change is unpalatable.

"It's this giant green space in one of the most congested areas in Studio City," said Laurie Cohn, a real estate agent who has helped spearhead opposition to the project. "We're trying to keep it exactly as it is."

'50s-Era Club Offers Plenty of Nostalgia

There's no shortage of nostalgia at the 1950s-era club, where kitschy dimpled lights shaped like giant golf balls tower over the parking lot. Sunburned golfers amble through the knotty pine clubhouse, greeting old friends as they hunker down on green vinyl stools in the coffee shop.

Over the years, the chummy club has hosted a stream of celebrity duffers, from Bob Hope and Jack Nicholson to Kevin Costner and Will Smith.

The club is something of a rarity in this status-conscious community: a privately owned golf and tennis center that is open to the public. The arrangement has contributed to the general feeling among residents that the property somehow belongs to them.

"It's kind of a community thing now," said Garrett Meyers, a stocky 16-year-old who learned to golf at the club. "I think the community should decide what happens to it."

That's just the sort of attitude that upsets Fred Weddington's grand-nephew. It's bad enough that old Fred locked his heirs into a 50-year lease at a rate better suited these days to a one-bedroom apartment than a sprawling sports center. Now it seems all of Studio City wants a piece of the pie.

"Everybody seems to think they own the . . . property except us," complained Guy Weddington McCreary, a North Hollywood businessman. "This is the best opportunity this city and the people are going to get on this property."

Homeplace has proposed erecting seven four-story buildings on five acres at the site, including a health-care center with nursing facilities and 50 rooms for assisted living. The plan also envisions parking, most of it underground, for nearly 500 vehicles.

Much of the existing golf and tennis club would be preserved. The nine-hole golf course and driving range would be slightly reconfigured and then donated to the city.

But the plan would shrink the tennis courts. It proposes tearing up all 20 courts and rebuilding eight.

To compensate, Homeplace promises to pay for construction of 12 public tennis courts at some other site, perhaps North Hollywood Park. All the new courts would be donated to the city. The developer also proposes to build a park along an adjacent stretch of the Los Angeles River.

But none of this has calmed skeptics, particularly the vocal Studio City Residents Assn., which has launched an aggressive campaign against the project. Residents have deluged the city Planning Department with thousands of letters denouncing the development plan.

"Will these money mongers not be happy until every bit of history, greenery and enjoyment is taken away from Studio City?" asked one letter writer, Sally Marshall.

Other opponents say the housing complex would block views of the Santa Monica Mountains and invite more traffic onto already crowded streets.

Stephen Taylor, chairman and CEO of Homeplace, bristles at the "tremendous campaign of disinformation" opponents have unleashed against a project he says safeguards most of the land as open space.

"They want everything to stay exactly like it is, and that's just not going to happen," Taylor said. "What we're doing is saving the golf course."

But the objections keep coming. Local politicians, from Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) to newly elected Councilman Jack Weiss, have urged city planners to require a full environmental impact report for the project. The city has found that any environmental impact could be adequately offset by landscaping and other measures.

If a retirement home is eventually built on the site, it would mark the latest incarnation for a property whose colorful history has long mirrored that of the San Fernando Valley.

At the turn of the century, the land was part of the Weddington sheep ranch. Wilson C. Weddington, one of North Hollywood's founding fathers (and Guy's great-grandfather), served as the area's first postmaster.

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