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Warner Center Is at Development Crossroads

The West Valley district has lived up to its potential, but some say it may be time to stop growing.

October 12, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

They laughed when developers in the early 1970s proposed building an upscale "downtown" skyline amid the citrus and olive orchards of Woodland Hills.

Early artists' concepts showed a "Jetsons"-like city of space-age office towers rising from studio mogul Harry Warner's horse farm. The design ended up looking more suburban than jet-set.

But this year, Warner Center has reached a crossroads that skeptics never would have believed: It is nearing city-mandated growth limits and officials have to figure out what to do next.

Once isolated on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, the district now is the terminus of the popular Orange Line busway and home to an expanded, upscale shopping mall. But more important, it is the site of three years of intense residential development that has brought more than 2,000 residential units to the community.

Developers have expressed interest in building at least 2,600 additional units -- if the Los Angeles City Council agrees to increase the housing limit set in 1997 at 3,000 new dwellings.

But critics say that more building means more traffic and that lower-paying retail jobs won't bring in the kind of revenue once spurred by aerospace companies.

Still, Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents the district, can't help but boast about Warner Center. He compares it favorably to the much larger, much glitzier Century City, the high-rise community developed around the same time on the Fox Studios lot.

While both districts have a mix of housing and office space, Zine said Warner Center's rents are a lot more affordable. He noted that the City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring 25% of all new apartment units in Warner Center be designated "workforce housing," meaning they would offer discounted rents to people who work in Warner Center.

"How many people who work there can live in Century City?" Zine said recently. "If you're paying $2,000 a month in rent and making $10 or $12 an hour, it's not going to work out. We want to give honest, good people the opportunity to live in a quality environment and not be pushed out."

At least one developer sells condominiums at reduced prices to people who work in Warner Center, he added.

Still, the building boom has ignited fears from some residents in surrounding communities that traffic and parking problems are growing worse.

Just try driving down De Soto Avenue at 2 in the afternoon, said Gordon Murley, a Woodland Hills resident and member of the South Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Murley and others said that though Warner Center was designed to allow people to live next to their jobs, many residents still use their cars. And as the district becomes more dense, that's causing congestion.

"People need a way to get around, to get to the shopping centers and to the bank," he said. "They should be able to hop on a Dash bus or another commuter service so they can get to their jobs. The whole concept was to have a jobs-housing balance."


"Project beautification has a high priority and our aim will be to re-create a feeling that is indigenous to the area," said Warner Center General Manager Richard E. Schneider in 1973 when the master plan was unveiled.

"Plantings ... will set the mood for landscaping that will include thousands of native poppies growing in profusion, California oaks, pepper and sycamore trees," he added.

Now, more than three decades later, the poppies, oaks, and pepper trees may be in short supply, but signs are everywhere that the grand visions set by city leaders and developers to transform Warner's thoroughbred horse ranch into an economic engine have become a reality.

Bounded by the 101 Freeway, Vanowen Street, DeSoto Avenue and Topanga Canyon Boulevard, Warner Center straddles three relatively affluent neighborhoods: Woodland Hills, Canoga Park and West Hills.

No one will confuse the collection of mid-rise, mirrored glass buildings with downtown L.A.'s skyline. But amid the flat Valley landscape, the cluster of office towers is hard to miss.

The apartments followed the offices, and now there is talk of more development.

One project under consideration is a 10,000-seat arena in Warner Center that would attract residents of the Valley and eastern Ventura County to sports, concerts and other events.

"It's close enough that people from Westlake and Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley can enjoy concerts and games without having to drive over the hill, too," said Mark Steele, president of the Valley Sports Authority, which wants to build the arena.

The talk of Warner Center these days is the upgrades to the Westfield Topanga mall, which like much of the area's retail development is on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

The Westfield Group poured $330 million into revitalizing the 42-year-old mall, adding 100 stores and shops, including a two-story Target, parking garages and upscale restaurants. Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus plans to open a store there in 2008.

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