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Sunland-Tujunga comes to identity crossroads

Longtime residents and newcomers are divided over growth. At the heart of the struggle is a proposed Home Depot.

February 19, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

"If I want to build a big house, who are you to judge what I do?" said Johnson, who was born and raised in Tujunga. "If they didn't want development, they should have kept everything dirt roads. The world is all about evolution. You can't stop it."

The community's quirky past included the establishment in 1913 of a utopian sanctuary in which farmers worked collectively, apart from the "evils" of the big city. By the 1920s, Sunland had been absorbed by the city of Los Angeles, and Tujunga followed soon after -- Los Angeles wanted Tujunga for the water rights, and Tujunga needed firefighters. The enclave became known as Sunland-Tujunga.

In the 1930s and 1940s, small, weekend homes, perhaps 800 to 1,000 square feet, were built as hunting lodges or mountain retreats for the rich. Asthmatics flocked to the area for its fresh mountain air. And after World War II, the community attracted employees from the San Fernando Valley's then-thriving aerospace industries.

The opening of the 210 Freeway in the 1970s made Sunland-Tujunga freeway-accessible. The community's "main street," two blocks of Commerce Avenue, lost local customers, who could drive to the mall. Later, apartment complexes sprung up along Foothill Boulevard.

Its "outback" reputation was cemented in the 1980s, when Sunland-Tujunga became a haven for motorcycle gangs, which were later run out by law enforcement. By the 1990s, Los Angeles police had dubbed Tujunga the speed capital of the San Fernando Valley for its methamphetamine-related arrests.

By 2000, the expanse of space within the city limits of land-starved Los Angeles became an attractive prospect for developers, who began tearing down the small, aging houses, subdividing large parcels and building huge homes on small lots to maximize profits.

"They'll rip down the existing square feet and put in a big, huge house that they can sell for $800,000," said Tomi Lyn Bowling, a Sunland real estate broker. "They end up pocketing half a million -- that's why it became such a hot item. Housing up here used to be relatively cheap, but ... boy, it didn't take long for [development] to spread like wildfire."

Builder Robert Hall was proud to hold the match.

"I'm an entrepreneur. I build my houses, people buy them, and I earn my living," said Hall, who lives a few mountains over, in La Crescenta. "I'm just a guy that builds houses that people like. To me, I improve this area."

Standing in front of one of his two-story homes -- criticized by preservationists for its size -- Hall said his projects raised overall property values and brought needed housing to the city.

"The biggest problem is you have people who don't like change. But it's the future," Hall said. "People have to live somewhere."

But homes like Hall's angered residents and sparked the 2005 anti-mansionization ordinance, which limits homes in Sunland-Tujunga to either 2,400 square feet or 40% of the lot's square footage.

The ordinance hasn't squelched construction. In La Tuna Canyon, 34 homes are rising next to a horse stable and an equestrian trail. Near Oro Vista Avenue and Big Tujunga Canyon Road, a developer hopes to build 20 homes.

But to some, a Home Depot represents the arrival of suburban convenience.

"It's going to bring prices down, and it's going to bring employment here," said Michael Geer, 51, of Shadow Hills. Geer, who works in construction, fondly remembers his youth, when he rode horses in the canyons and foothills. But nowadays, he is more interested in riding motorcycles.

"It's always been a rural area, and we would like to stay rural," he said.

"But it's inevitable. It's part of progress. It's not always my druthers, but I think we have to grow."

ron.lin@latimes.com

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