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Art as peacemaker in Woodland Hills?

Some residents object to plans for a Costco store's large blank face on Victory Boulevard. An old bank mural could inspire compromise.

November 30, 2010|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times

Can an iconic 26-foot mural bridge the gap between a big-box retailer hoping to build a 148,000-square-foot store on a prime Warner Center corner and residents who oppose it as ugly and out of place?

The ceramic tile mosaic by acclaimed artists Marlo Bartels and Astrid Preston was placed on the front of a Home Savings and Loan branch at 21818 Victory Blvd. in 1989. It depicts the juxtaposition of homes and businesses in Woodland Hills.

The former bank building is now a copy shop and shipping center, and it is earmarked to be demolished to make way for a new Costco.

But some homeowners and members of the Woodland Hills-Warner Center Neighborhood Council are critical of plans calling for the huge single-story store to have a 450-foot rear wall facing busy Victory Boulevard. They think the warehouse store should be built elsewhere, or at least moved to the interior of the 31-acre mixed-use project called "The Village" by its owner, Westfield Shopping Centers.

So far, executives of Costco and Westfield have rejected those suggestions, as well as one calling for construction of a two-story store with a smaller physical footprint on land between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Owensmouth Avenue.

"The fact of the matter is we're going to pursue this," Costco Vice President Jackie Frank told members of the neighborhood council's planning and land-use committee earlier this month. "You may not like it, but what we've presented is certainly well within the bounds of zoning, specific planning and good planning principles."

John Alderson, Westfield's project manager, said his company is proceeding with the development of a single-story structure at the Victory Boulevard location.

"It's going to stop here.... I frankly don't want to come here anymore. I don't want to do this anymore," he said, referring to the series of public meetings to discuss the plans. "I'm not going to put my tenant through this anymore. I'm not going to put our design staff through it anymore. I'm not interested anymore."

Alderson said he plans to submit an environmental impact report required for the proposed project to Los Angeles city officials soon.

Woodland Hills-area City Councilman Dennis Zine, meanwhile, said he remains opposed to the 450-foot wall along Victory Boulevard.

"It needs to blend and not clash," Zine said of the Costco store. "It would not work for the beautification of the community to have the back of the store facing the boulevard."

Woodland Hills activists said they have formed the Greater West Valley Alliance and have drawn up their own proposal for the Costco project. They are circulating a protest petition, which quickly got 500 signatures.

"We want a two-story, urban Costco. It makes so much more sense," said Joyce Pearson, an attorney who is a member of the neighborhood council and a supporter of the alliance.

"A 450-foot wall would create blight for Woodland Hills," said Shirley Blessing, another alliance activist.

But that 450-foot blank wall could provide the backdrop for an even grander mural commemorating the history of Woodland Hills and the West San Fernando Valley, say the artists who created the Home Savings mural 21 years ago.

Bartels, a ceramics artist from Laguna Beach, collaborated with Preston on that work, commissioned by H.F. Ahmanson & Co.

"It was a privilege to follow in the footsteps of Millard Sheets," the artist who created the original Home Savings pieces and died the year the Woodland Hills artwork was installed, he said.

Bartels, who did seven murals for Ahmanson, said the Woodland Hills artwork should be preserved. And he would gladly collaborate with Preston again to expand it to reflect West Valley history, which spans the Chumash Indians era to pioneering ranchers, filmmaking and aerospace manufacturing that created the rockets that took man to the moon.

Count her in, said Preston, a Santa Monica artist who created the mural's homes-and-business motif.

"It would be fun. Exclusion and blank walls are awful. I'd absolutely be willing to collaborate on a larger mural out there," she said.

Kristen Paulson, who was in charge of Ahmanson's bank-branch murals in the 1980s, described the Woodland Hills artwork as "one of our better projects," one that linked the area's past with its present. She said the mural should be preserved.

Alderson said preservation of the old Home Savings mural has not been discussed. But saving it and expanding it "would be an interesting conversation to have," he said.

Zine agreed. "If it can be saved, I want to save it," he said of the existing artwork. And a more extensive mural might be a valuable depiction of the West Valley's past.

"Our history is just evaporating," the councilman said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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