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A Battle for the High Ground

In the hills of northeast L.A., debate flares over property rights and preserving open space.

March 07, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

The hills north and east of downtown Los Angeles are a mishmash of small homes, narrow streets, hidden valleys and long views. A few have streetlights; others go dark at night, quiet swatches of countryside less than 10 miles from City Hall. Some of the city's last big undeveloped parcels -- places like Flat-Top, Mt. Olympus, Rose Hill, Paradise Hill -- frame the horizon.

Now those inviting green spaces have become the staging ground in a bitter, protracted dispute, with distinct class and racial overtones, that is a microcosm of the exploding development struggles across Los Angeles.

Each side has its devoted advocates. There is Clare Marter Kenyon, a librarian with a soft British accent and a keen determination to protect plants and wildlife from encroaching development; when she drives around El Sereno, she sees the stumps of felled California black walnuts and winces. There is James Rojas, an urban planner who lives downtown but covets the relief of the open spaces and is closely allied with Kenyon. "West L.A.," he said, "has their ocean. We have our hillsides." And there is Tomas Osinski, a Polish emigre and architect with a critical eye, an adamant belief in the rights of property owners and an intolerance for government hypocrisy.

The specifics of their fight are the hillside and building regulations of northeast Los Angeles. Some want emergency rules to slow development while the neighborhoods devise long-term guidelines for growth. Others contend those proposed rules represent a vast overreaction and threaten to rob homeowners of their investments for no good reason.

If the specifics are particular to these communities, however, the larger themes are universal in the city and region: In a period of housing shortages and shrinking open space, should hillsides be sacrificed for homes? Should homeowners who bought property and made plans under one set of rules be restricted by new limitations that could cost them return on their investment? Is it coincidence or design that wealthier areas of the city's Westside are governed by zoning and building plans while the less well-off, predominantly Latino Eastside grows more pell-mell?

Standing on one of the contested hills, on a grassy slope where he used to sled on refrigerator boxes as a child, pointing out his grammar school and nodding to the tower that houses his city government office, Councilman Ed Reyes says the cresting emotions among his constituents are the tip of a very large controversy. "We are reaching a crisis point," he said one recent afternoon. "I should be wearing a bullet-proof vest."

The fight for the future of the northeast hills has a long history, and it reached a flashpoint in the fall of 2004, when environmentalists in the area pressed the City Council to adopt an interim control ordinance -- in effect, a directive to sharply reduce the number of building permits. The ordinance had the support of then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and strong backing from the area's environmental leadership.

But the proposal's restrictions would have slowed development not just of the region's major parcels but of all land in affected hillside areas. The result was a backlash from homeowners, including Osinski, who feared the ordinance would rob landowners and small developers of their investments.

That Osinski should emerge as such a vehement opponent of the restrictions is telling. He is, himself, a type of environmentalist. The glassed-in breakfast room of his home, which he designed, crawls with vines that have crept indoors. His house is nestled among trees, and he has designed homes specifically to protect the vegetation around them. But Osinski will tell you that he is an environmentalist because he chooses to be, not because the government orders him to be.

When he learned of the interim control ordinance, Osinski was infuriated by its sweep, by its strict limits on floor space and grading, by the proliferation of well-intentioned but clunky design rules. Those rules, he says, discourage innovative architecture and substitute the aesthetic preferences of City Hall politicians and bureaucrats for homeowners who invest in their land and property. City rules regulate retaining walls, setbacks and building height in ways that discourage some excesses but also limit creative design, he noted. Height limits, for instance, regulate the overall distance between the peak and foot of a home. That prevents the construction of buildings that block neighbors' views but also discourages modest terracing by limiting how far down a hillside a home may extend.

"We are mandated to design ugly buildings," he said.

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