Julie Thomas shares a laugh with Jerry Donson, a resident at Kingsley Manor… (Los Angeles Times )
Sherwood Forest is not a neighborhood of merry men and women these days. For the last several months, the leafy enclave of rambling homes in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley has been the site of a pitched battle between developers who want to build a 112-unit elder care facility and opponents who complain that the "Costco-size" institution will be an eyesore, and an unnecessary one at that, in a community zoned for single-family dwellings.
Attorney Fred Selan and his development partner, Ted Stein, want to take a 2.3-acre lot where Selan's home now sits and demolish it to build a 65,797-square-foot, two-story facility in which 75% of the units would be devoted to assisted living care and the remainder to people suffering from Alzheimer's or other kinds of dementia. That's the downsized version. In the wake of the community uproar, the developers recently scaled back the project.
This isn't the only neighborhood in L.A. where civic groups have opposed such facilities. In 2006, the city amended the zoning code to allow elder facilities offering mixed levels of care to apply for permits to operate in almost any neighborhood — including areas zoned for single-family homes — in an effort to ensure that facilities weren't limited to urban, high-density neighborhoods and to streamline the process. To get a permit, a facility must meet various criteria, including being compatible with the neighborhood, not significantly affecting traffic and providing necessary services. The ordinance says that new development should not stray from the general plan for the community.
That was a move in the right direction. Elder care facilities should be spread through neighborhoods across the city. The elderly population in Los Angeles is growing dramatically. These are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and spouses, and when they need special housing and services they shouldn't be relegated to commercial or industrial neighborhoods or to poorer, less politically connected parts of town.
But the city was also right to establish a process to determine when such facilities are appropriate in a residential neighborhood and when they are not. Recent battles have been fought in Tarzana, Chatsworth and Woodland Hills.
The developers of this project say that it would be nearly shrouded by trees ringing the property. It would be constructed of a concrete that looks exactly like wood. The city's department of transportation has already concluded that the added cars generated by the facility would not significantly affect the traffic around the development (one side of which sits on a busy four-lane thoroughfare).
Opponents, of course, disagree, saying the developers have underestimated the impact of the traffic and noting that there are already nine big senior facilities within several miles of this project. It's perfectly understandable that neighbors worry about what will happen to their communities when a large facility like this one moves onto the block. But in the end, a city zoning administrator will make a decision — one that we hope will take into account the facts and the data, and balance the concerns of the community against the very real needs of the city and its growing elderly population. There will still be a measure of subjectivity in his decision — how could there not be? — but it seems that the city has set up a process that focuses, at least, on the right questions.