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For garden complex in Boyle Heights, a season of change

Wyvernwood Gardens is a decades-old landmark. But a plan to build condos has residents concerned.

December 05, 2009|By Hector Becerra
  • Giselle Montiel, 11, left; Vivian Alejandre, 11; Jasmin Merino, 7; and Omar Merino, 9, play after school at the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights.
Giselle Montiel, 11, left; Vivian Alejandre, 11; Jasmin Merino, 7; and… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

As a teenager growing up in the 70-acre Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights, Jesus Hermosillo knew that life could be scary within its Depression-era buildings and vast lawns capable of swallowing football fields.

In the early 1990s, when gang killings peaked in Los Angeles, even the intrepid pizza delivery guy wouldn't step into Wyvernwood, Hermosillo said.

"We had to give the address of a place across the street on 8th Street, and go wait for the pizza in front of someone else's house," he recalled. "It seemed like there were shootings every night."

When he was 16, his family moved to a single-family home in City Terrace. Over the years, the now 34-year-old UCLA graduate student has lived in San Francisco and West L.A. But three years ago, he moved back to Wyvernwood because of memories that he said easily overrode the bad ones.

Even in the worst of times, everyone seemed to know one another, and stepping outside of one's apartment was like stepping into a park. Neighbors looked after one another, he said, and when he returned almost 20 years later, crime had plummeted, but that sense of community hadn't changed.

"My mother and my siblings moved to Phoenix because they couldn't find affordable housing and jobs in L.A.," he said. "Coming back, it's very comforting to still have neighbors who I knew back then, and who know my family. This feels like a village."

But today, the owners of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments and their supporters say the aging complex has served its purpose and should make way for a new residential development that they say could give root to a better future for working-class Boyle Heights.

Last year, Fifteen Group, the Miami investment company that has owned Wyvernwood since 1998, announced plans for a $2-billion redevelopment, including high-rise condominiums, that would nearly quadruple its size by 2020. The 1,187 existing units would be replaced by 4,400 condominiums and apartments, plus retail space.

The developer's executive vice president, Steven Fink, said it would be years before any construction would begin and that residents would get financial help to move, though many would be allowed to stay at affordable housing rates.

"Let's face it, Boyle Heights has been the recipient of promises of change for decades," he said. "Many of which have never materialized, or which materialized differently than people thought it would. . . . This would be a catalyst of improvement for the neighborhood."

Though any dramatic action would be years off, many of Wyvernwood's residents have organized against the proposed development.

On Thursday night, more than 100 marched on the immense lawns, chanting slogans as they walked to a nearby gymnasium, where they shared stories about their connections to Wyvernwood.

As they marched, the large neon sign on top of the 1920s-era 14-story Art Deco Sears tower -- itself long the subject of chatter about a retail and condo development -- shone a brilliant green. With the help of the L.A. Conservancy, residents opposed to the proposed project want to build an oral history of the place.

Garden complex

Opened in 1939, Wyvernwood was the first large-scale garden complex in L.A. The 153 mostly two-story orange stucco buildings house more than 6,000 residents. Getting from one side of the complex to another can be a daunting, even confusing, task for an outsider.

The first residents were largely white and Jewish. Linda Dishman, the executive director of the L.A. Conservancy, said Wyvernwood was designed to foster a close-knit community, with its huge communal lawns, playground equipment and pedestrian paths.

By many accounts, it succeeded for nearly 70 years. Children ride bikes along narrow asphalt roads, and religious processions, such as those portraying the crucifixion of Christ, wend along sprawling lawns and under imposing trees.

"This is a good place for children," said Ana Torres, 30, who has lived in Wyvernwood with her husband for seven years. "There's lots of green space, and that's vital so that children grow up healthier. Other places don't have what we have here. There's playgrounds where children can safely run around."

The rally was spirited, but organizers said the turnout was smaller than they expected. They cited a pervasive sense among many residents that nothing would happen soon. But some said that some residents were simply not passionate about the issue. Although many of the longer-term residents pay rents as low as $600 a month because of rent control, an increasing number of them are more recent arrivals who pay close to market rate, said Gumaro Oviedo, 49, a photographer and resident of Wyvernwood for 18 years.

"Some people don't care if they knock it down or don't knock it down," he said. "They're neutral."

Oviedo said Wyvernwood is like a small town, an oasis where he and his wife feel comfortable raising a 3-year-old niece.

"I had a friend who said when he was growing up, his playground was the Evergreen Cemetery," he said. "Here, you open the door and you're in a park. It's a privilege."

But Father John Moretta of Resurrection Church, attended by many Wyvernwood residents, said the apartments have outlasted their time. He said the project is a chance not only to increase the stock of affordable housing in Boyle Heights but also to improve the neighborhood.

"It should be torn down," Moretta said. "It's way past its prime. The argument that they'd be destroying history simply doesn't fly."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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