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Santa Monica trailer park residents face uncertain future

The owner wants to redevelop the nearly 4-acre site with residential units, offices and shops. But tenants have urged the city to consider buying the property, valued at as much as $30 million.

December 24, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • A sign in front of a mobile home describes the sentiments of residents about the possibility of having to leave Village Trailer Park in Santa Monica. The property owners want to redevelop the site with a large mixed-use development, but the dozens of remaining tenants want it to remain a low-income haven.
A sign in front of a mobile home describes the sentiments of residents about… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

When David Latham laid eyes on Santa Monica's Village Trailer Park in 1990, he fell in love with the abundant trees and vintage mobile homes. He paid about $20,000 for one of two vacant trailers and ever since has happily leased his rent-controlled space by the month amid the retro ambience.

Latham, 66, an unemployed teacher, and dozens of other low-income residents are now scrambling to save their funky slice of paradise as the park's owner seeks to redevelop the nearly 4-acre site into a complex with residential units, offices and shops.

If the city allows the owner to close the park, "I'll simply be having my home and my assets stolen," Latham said. "That's not right, and, even worse, I'd lose all my friends here because I'd have to relocate out of state."

PHOTOS: Trailer park's future uncertain

Built in the mid-20th century as a camp for vacationers and weekend beach visitors, the 109-space Village Trailer Park just might give way in the name of progress.

And that has longtime residents and other community activists pleading with the city to deflect developers and preserve the quiet outpost off Colorado Avenue.

Residents have long been on high alert. In 2007, they received a reprieve from imminent eviction when the City Council voted to pursue a development agreement with the owner. As part of that deal, the developer, Village Trailer Park LLC, agreed to halt evictions and negotiate with the city.

For several years, the park has declined to accept new residents, and, as residents have left or died, the owner has demolished trailers, leaving many vacant concrete pads. Fifty or so residents remain. They include retired firefighters and teachers, professors and actors, including Jack Donner, 83, who plays FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's father in the current film "J. Edgar." The 1993 film "Shortcuts" with Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits featured scenes shot in the park.

Silver Streak, Streamline and Seaview trailers — some tacky, some spiffy — feature Christmas tinsel and "Occupy" signs. A plywood door in front of one trailer is adorned with a wind chime made of shells and comments such as "Surf's Up" and "Dolphins are awesome."

The proposal by Village Trailer Park owner James Muramatsu and his partners would entail closing the park and building a nearly 400,000-square-foot, mixed-use project with 393 residential units, 105,334 square feet of "creative" office space and 11,710 square feet of neighborhood-serving retail businesses. The complex would include two four-story and two five-story buildings.

Of the 166 apartments planned, 109 would be subject to Santa Monica's rent control ordinance, with 52 of those deemed "affordable." Some apartments would be made available to the 50 or so current Village Trailer Park tenants. The remaining 57 apartments would be leased at market rates. The project also would include 227 market-rate condominiums and a two-level, 778-space below-ground parking garage.

The city's Landmarks Commission recently began evaluating the property's post-World War II history to determine whether to designate the park as a local landmark, an action that could slow redevelopment plans.

Until the panel decides in February, the city may not issue permits. Councilman Kevin McKeown has urged the city to buy the property, valued at as much as $30 million.

"Letting development displace vulnerable seniors and destroy the homes that represent their lifetime equity isn't the Santa Monica way," McKeown said in an e-mail.

The Village Trailer Park proposal arrives as Santa Monica is planning for a new, public-transit-oriented future. With the Expo Line light rail slated to reach Santa Monica in 2015 and the long-term hope of a subway to the sea, the city is courting mixed-use developments with housing, offices and retail at the east end of town.

All told, projects proposed or underway would add about 1.5 million square feet of development in an area that already houses several entertainment media complexes with tenants such as MTV Networks and Yahoo.

The new offices are expected to lure primarily creative businesses in movie, TV, music, social media, architecture and design.

Marc Luzzatto, a principal in Village Trailer Park LLC, said the park has severe infrastructure problems and is "economically nonviable." Over the years, the park has had sewage spills, dirty tap water and substandard, illegal buildings.

"We're keeping people from investing money in a thing that would lose money," Luzzatto said.

Luzzatto, who remains firm in his resolve, said the company plans to offer tenants about $20,000 in relocation fees, more than the city requirement. He said the company was working to help find Section 8 housing or spots in the nearby city-owned Mountain View Mobile Home Park.

Catherine Eldridge, 61, co-chairwoman of the Village Trailer Park homeowners group, said the park's demise would quash an entire community.

"I've been unemployed and come home from job-hunting to find gifts of food at my door," she said. "Nobody goes to the ER without a neighbor with him.... There's no such thing as a stray cat in our park."

PHOTOS: Trailer park's future uncertain

martha.groves@latimes.com

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