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Ledge Homes Put Foes on Edge

After 19 years, two Laurel Canyon houses finally have been finished. Now, to the dismay of neighbors, the developer wants to build more.

September 15, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

For nearly 20 years they stood as the beacon of bad for commuters winding their way through the mountains between Studio City and Hollywood.

Two hulking, partially built houses clung precariously to the nearly vertical hillside off a fire road at the top of Laurel Canyon. They were the first things that motorists saw as they left the San Fernando Valley and crossed Mulholland Drive.

Graffiti was sometimes scrawled on the abandoned structures, whose boxy backsides towered five stories over the canyon. During occasional periods of construction, debris would tumble down the hill. Rainstorms sent mudflows oozing toward Laurel Canyon Boulevard below.

Young people used the empty houses for drug parties. Prostitutes frequented the places until neighbors got authorities to chase them away. Homeless squatters came and went, using charcoal barbecues to cook on since the two dwellings lacked water and electricity.

But after years of being ignored and neglected, the homes and the narrow road they sit on are suddenly getting a lot of attention.

The owners finally completed the homes earlier this year. And to the dismay of residents, more homes might be coming to the ledge.

The city calls the one-lane dirt road where the two homes are perched Bulwer Drive. It is demanding that it be widened to a regulation 20 feet, paved and lined with curbs, and equipped with a 60-foot-wide firetruck turnaround space that will be partially suspended over Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

To pay the millions of dollars it will cost to build retaining walls held up by about 90 caissons and the massive concrete cantilevered turnaround, the Nebraska company that took over and finished the 19-year construction project says it has to build more houses on Bulwer Drive.

Canyon residents grumble that Midwest First Financial of Omaha has remained closed-mouthed about the extent of its eventual development. They contend that the two finished houses are enough of a blight on the scenic parkway, a city-designated view-shed corridor that runs through the mountains between the Cahuenga Pass and Topanga Canyon.

Homeowners are demanding that the Nebraska firm fully disclose its development plans and pay for a full-fledged environmental assessment of its long-term impact on Laurel Canyon.

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Canyon residents say the roots of the dispute go back eight decades, to a time when the vast Santa Monica Mountains area was first being subdivided. Some of the newly designated "lots" were so steep and geologically unstable that they were deemed undevelopable. Some parcels were even given away as prizes or publicity stunts.

City construction rules in the mountain area remained relatively loose until the 1970s, when tract-builders began running out of flat land and began looking toward the hills.

In 1976 city officials took their first step toward limiting construction of homes on hillsides with a test ordinance that used a formula to base development density on the steepness of the terrain for portions of Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Bel-Air and Woodland Hills. The rules were extended to other mountainous portions of the city in 1987.

By then, though, a speculator had secured city approval to build three houses on Bulwer Drive. Permits issued in October 1986 allowed them to be perched side-by-side next to the fire road, about 100 feet above Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Construction began on the three houses in 1987. But when the original speculator ran out of cash and work was about to stop, a fire later labeled as arson burned the third one to the ground.

Firefighters were forced to use a helicopter to extinguish that 1990 blaze. After the fire, the bank holding the construction loan foreclosed on the original developer.

The two unfinished houses changed hands about a half-dozen more times before eventually being donated to Pepperdine University as a tax write-off. The university was unable to secure proper title to the property, however, and so turned it over to the realty agent who had helped arrange the gift. In early 2001 the agent pledged to neighbors that the two homes would finally be completed.

Canyon homeowners say the realty agent went into partnership with Midwest Financial on the project. As the construction project languished, canyon homeowners petitioned to have the vacant structures razed. In 2003 the city attorney's office warned that the city was poised through its Narcotics Abatement Unit task force to tear them down unless there was "timely completion of the construction at your properties."

After a dispute with its partner, the Omaha group subsequently took over the project and finished the two houses. It put them on the market as it filed for city permission to begin construction of another one.

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It has been at preliminary city hearings on that permit request that controversy has again flared over the first two houses, which one wag has nicknamed "Fred" and "Ethel" with a nod to the aging, cranky "I Love Lucy" TV show characters who never could win any respect.

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