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Despite Gate, Home Builders Speculate

Hollywood Hills: Canyon residents fear that large new houses along road ending in cul-de-sac will become multi-tenant units.

October 09, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even the locked gate across one of its public streets can't keep anger and confrontation from creeping into Curson Canyon.

The gate blocks Wattles Drive, a short and twisty stretch of asphalt that for decades ended in a Hollywood Hills cul-de-sac framed by a stunning 180-degree view of the Los Angeles Basin stretching from Los Feliz to Santa Monica.

The handful of residents who live along Wattles Drive have the access code. So do neighbors outside the gate--which the city authorized nine years ago after locals complained that the cul-de-sac had turned into a lovers' lane that was attracting troublemakers from the flatlands below.

The gate chased the outsiders away. But it also lured intruders of a different type into the secluded canyon north of Hollywood Boulevard and east of Nichols Canyon Road: developers building houses on speculation.

Canyon residents watched in alarm as one huge spec house after another was built. Most clung precariously to the steep mountainside below Wattles Drive. Then one house actually seemed to spill onto the roadway itself.

That project has provoked howls from neighbors, who contend that Los Angeles leaders gave away a chunk of Wattles Drive's spectacular cul-de-sac for use as part of the frontyard of the house, which now completely blocks the scenic view and is for sale for $4.7 million.

And they say officials are looking the other way as other large, unsold dwellings around Wattles Drive are converted into unauthorized apartment houses.

Municipal officials acknowledge the controversy over ownership of the 75-foot cul-de-sac strip. But they say they are convinced that giving up part of the street was proper. And they deny knowledge of any illegal apartment houses in the area.

Furious residents say the cul-de-sac was an important staging spot for firetrucks. Without unfettered fire engine access, residents complain, their neighborhood is in jeopardy.

The cul-de-sac land was sold for development by "Jeopardy!" game show host Alex Trebek.

The cul-de-sac lot is part of a rugged mountainside that Trebek purchased for $1.5 million in 1990. At the time, he planned to sell 21 lots near Wattles Drive and keep land at the top for a house for himself.

His own house plans fell through, however, because of access problems with the site. Four years ago, Trebek donated the mountaintop parcel to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as open space and sold off the remaining smaller lots around Wattles Drive.

Four homes, including the one on the cul-de-sac, have been built on Wattles and a fifth is underway. Beneath the drive, seven others are in various phases of construction.

Neighbors assert that many of the dwellings are being built so they can be turned into multi-tenant rentals.

"I could tell by the way they were stringing the electric wiring that they were building a rooming house," nearby resident Lan Ritz said of one house. "I was right. A bunch of musicians live and practice there. The quality of my life has diminished 95%."

Ritz, a writer and artist who has lived in Curson Canyon for 38 years, said construction trucks have nearly flattened the masonry wall next to her circa-1929 house. And after she complained to the city about the alleged apartment building, a lawyer for one developer threatened in May to sue her, she said.

City officials have been slow to respond to residents' concerns, others in the canyon agree.

"The city goes after people doing little things wrong, but looks the other way at things like that street," said Federico Fichtl, a retired maitre d' who has lived beneath Wattles Drive for nearly three decades.

David Ronne, president of the Curson Hills Homeowners Assn., said some of the neighborhood's spec houses have been under construction off and on for as long as eight years.

"We point out clear violations, and nothing happens. But the neighbors get chastised for harassing the builders," said Ronne, a movie recording engineer who has lived in the neighborhood 27 years. He said the cul-de-sac house seems destined to become subdivided into apartments too.

Lawrence Lazar, the home's developer, said the reconfigured cul-de-sac in front of his house meets city specifications. As for its boomerang-shaped, view-blocking design: "It's a beautiful hacienda house, not an apartment house," he said.

City officials, who control use of new residential structures by monitoring the number of kitchen facilities built into them, say there is no indication the cul-de-sac house is apartment-bound. They say there is no evidence other large homes under construction in the area are, either.

"I've sent the inspectors out there a million times, and they don't see anything," said Renee Weitzer, an aide to City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the Hollywood Hills area.

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