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Historic Apartment Complex Starts a Comeback Under New Owners

Chase Knolls in Sherman Oaks, saved from the wrecking ball, is being renovated.

November 04, 2002|Stephanie Stassel | Times Staff Writer

Once slated for demolition, the 1940s-era Chase Knolls apartment complex in Sherman Oaks is experiencing a renaissance as new owners refurbish the units and sprawling grounds that were formerly at the heart of a battle between a developer and tenants.

Boards placed on the windows of vacant units by the former owner, Legacy Partners, have been removed. The wooden letters that spell out "Chase Knolls" have been reinstalled on the office. A full-time landscaping crew is tending to the grounds, and apartments are being painted in anticipation of new tenants.

"In the first 48 hours after the regime changed, it was a bustle of activity," said Susan Jagiello, who helped organize residents to save the 13-acre complex on Riverside Drive, east of Notre Dame High School. "They've made all the right moves and have reached out to the residents. After a 2 1/2-year hiatus, it's nice to see things happening."

The battle over Chase Knolls began after Legacy purchased the complex in January 2000, intending to replace the working-class garden apartments and bungalows with a 402-unit luxury apartment building, including 40 units of affordable housing for seniors. Instead of taking money from Legacy to move, residents of 80 units stayed put, determined to maintain the original complex.

The desire to save Chase Knolls galvanized the residents, who fought for and eventually won historic cultural monument status from the Los Angeles City Council in July 2000, even though the city's Cultural Heritage Commission deadlocked twice on the issue. The complex, an example of the Garden City movement in urban design, was built in 1949 to provide families with affordable housing surrounding large courtyards of green lawns and trees.

"The chief goal of Chase Knolls was building a sense of community. That is why we survived, because we are a community," said Jagiello, a freelance textbook editor who has lived at Chase Knolls for 15 years. "This proves it works."

While the monument status doesn't provide total protection from the wrecking ball, it requires the property owner to complete an environmental impact report before demolishing anything. Such a report hasn't materialized. Instead, Legacy sold the property in mid-August to Knolls Associates for an undisclosed amount.

Sue Gold, manager of Chase Knolls, said the new owner wants to rent out the approximately 160 vacant units and has no plans to tear down the complex. Ten apartments are being prepared at a time, and there is a short waiting list, she said. One-bedroom units rent for about $1,020 a month, two-bedroom units for about $1,200, with bungalows going for about $75 more.

"We're just going to lease apartments. We're not developers," said Ernie Mieger, president of EDM Realty Corp. in San Francisco, the property manager. "We're not planning to kick anybody out. We don't do that."

Dennis Cavallari, senior vice president with Irvine-based Legacy Partners, said after the complex was given historic status his company decided not to demolish the property but to renovate it to take advantage of special tax credits. But when the company had difficulty with financing, a major financial partner "directed us to sell the property."

Before selling Chase Knolls, Legacy entered into a Mills Act contract with the city, which requires the current owner to preserve the most significant features of a historic piece of the property, said Kenneth Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The 10-year contract, which gives the owner a property tax reduction, carries stiff penalties if it is breached.

"This is a true win-win preservation story," Bernstein said.

Although she is appreciative of the recent improvements, nine-year Chase Knolls resident Mary Jane Atkins said she is anxious to meet with the new owner.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Atkins, a community college English teacher. "You have to understand that we've just been through a war. I trust [the new owners] will be fine with everything. Once they meet with the residents and tell us their plans, we'll feel better."

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