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Swap of park space is sought

A firm would build on a North Hollywood green belt and create a new park and condos nearby. It's called the only such deal in recent memory.

March 28, 2007|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

As part of the city's move toward a denser urban environment, officials are lending support to an unusual land-swap plan that would allow a developer to build on a five-acre park in North Hollywood.

Under the proposal, the developer, J.H. Snyder Co., would replace part of Valley Plaza Park with a parking structure for a new mega-development rivaling The Grove shopping center in square footage. In exchange, the company said it would build a new park a few blocks away, adjacent to a 700-unit condominium and apartment complex that Snyder also plans to build.

The parkland swap, approved in concept by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, is the only such transfer in recent memory, according to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

It has sparked concern among some local residents, who worry that the developer ultimately will not build a new park as promised.

They point out that city officials talked for years about creating a park just south of City Hall, then decided to build the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters there.

"I want a thorough airing of how a private developer can acquire public parkland," said Ronald Bitzer, a local resident who serves on the advisory board at Valley Plaza Park. "I don't trust J.H. Snyder to proceed with caution when it comes to tampering with dedicated parkland."

The land swap is a small part of a much larger development project to be built on the site of Valley Plaza shopping center on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, south of Victory Boulevard. The 1955 shopping center, one of the San Fernando Valley's first, has been decaying for years, and has been scheduled for redevelopment since it was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Snyder's project would involve tearing down the center and replacing it with nearly 800,000 square feet of retail, commercial and entertainment businesses, including a Macy's department store and a multiplex movie theater. It would be designed by Massachusetts-based Elkus Manfredi Architects, the firm that designed The Grove.

Immediately to the southeast at Laurel Plaza, the site of a former May Co. building that now is a Macy's store, Snyder hopes to build condominiums, apartments and the new park.

The redevelopment agency, which is helping to build the commercial portion of the project, hopes the renewed Valley Plaza will be a catalyst for development along a stretch of Laurel Canyon that, though once prosperous, has been blighted for decades.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Wendy Greuel sees the commercial project and the nearby residential one as part of the city's push toward so-called smart growth, in which people live in condos and houses that are near shops, offices and entertainment and are along transit lines.

Laurel Canyon, a major north-south street in the Valley, is served by buses that connect to the popular Orange Line busway and such destinations as Ventura Boulevard.

The city needs to look at developing "places where people can get public transportation and where they can walk across the street to go to a grocery store, walk across the street and go to a Macy's or a coffee shop," Greuel said.

Citing neighborhood concerns that the project might be too big, Greuel said that she supported the plan in concept, but that she would continue to review it as the proposal advanced.

Cliff Goldstein, Snyder's project manager for the two developments, said the company's goal was to develop Valley Plaza as a gathering place or town center for the eastern part of the San Fernando Valley.

He was scheduled to present the company's proposed design for the two sites to a nearby homeowners group Tuesday night. It would include a plan for an open-air courtyard in the center "the size of a football field," Goldstein said, with parking for Macy's and other stores in a separate structure on the site of the former park.

Goldstein said it was not yet clear when the company would build the new park, because the logistics of relocating it to the Laurel Plaza property are complicated.

On one hand, he said, the company needs to build on the side of the existing park as part of its overall development of the site. But Macy's does not plan to move out of its property across the street until the new store in Valley Plaza is ready to open, which could make it difficult to build the park early in the process.

He said the company plans to make the new park much nicer than the existing one, which is essentially a five-acre strip of trees and grass next to the 170 Freeway. The existing park was once part of the larger Valley Plaza Park and recreation center. But the wedge-shaped parcel was cut off after the freeway was built through the center of the bigger park acreage.

Under the current proposal, the new five-acre park would include trees and walking paths and possibly a water feature, Goldstein said.

He said the company would not renege on its promise to build the park.

"That has never been an option and that is not an option," Goldstein said.

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