The Dilemma Of Development: Studio City Residents Divided Over New Construction
It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Neon lights and loud music fill a crowded Studio City bowling alley.
As the clattering of clanking pins echoes on the wood, 20-year-old Christopher Williams greets customers with his broad smile. The pop song, “Love Me Harder” by Ariana Grande and The Weeknd, begins to play on the TVs. Williams turns around to see his favorite musician, Abel Tesfaye come on screen.
But when Williams turns back around, he does a double take.
“As he got closer, I just shut down,” Williams said.
Walking through the entrance of the bowling alley was the actual Abel Tesfaye.
“I consider myself very outgoing. I think that’s one of the things that makes me very good at my job,” Williams said. “It was cool to see a different part of myself. The little shy, star-struck Chris.”
For employees at Pinz Bowling Center, moments like these aren’t uncommon. Celebrities, sports icons, musicians, and movie stars frequent this bowling alley. In fact, the operations manager, John Boyle, who has been working at Pinz for the past 25 years, says he remembers when Al Pacino would bring his daughter to bowl during the daytime when no one was around. “We happen to be a part of a community that the entertainment industry is also a part of,” Boyle said. “CBS Studios is down the street, Universal studios and so on. What do they say? Location. Location. Location. There you go.”
Since the city’s birth in the 1920s, Studio City has been an iconic landmark for the entertainment industry. A drive down the city’s main street, Ventura Boulevard, greets visitors with modest commercial development and lush green landscaping. No building rises above the many palm trees that line the street.
But with time, comes age — and controversial plans for renewal. Come 2020, celebrities, visitors, and residents might see a very different Studio City. Developers and owners are looking to make major changes to some of the city’s central landmarks, key among them the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a hotel and events center with a 130-year-old history that dates past the city.
In March, the owner of Sportsmen’s Lodge, Richard Weintraub, got the green light to strike down the events center to build Sportsman’s Landing, an upscale $60 million, 98,000 square-foot shopping center with 20 shops, five restaurants, 445 parking spaces, and a gym.
Other large-scale projects in the works include the 65-year-old Weddington Golf and Tennis, a 9-hole golf course backed up against the Los Angeles River with a driving range and 16 tennis courts. The owners are trying to replace the tennis courts with 200 senior housing units in six, four-story buildings going up 45 feet.
Currently, the only building that might rival the height of the city’s palm trees is the iconic Studio City neon sign that shoots off of Bookstar, a Barnes and Noble bookstore retaining the façade of the 1940’s single-screen movie theater that formerly occupied the space.
Proposals like these have sparked retaliation. Residents appealed Sportsmen’s Landing’s construction in a five-hour public hearing in March that ended in their defeat. In response to the Weddington condos, over the past 15 years, residents formed a non-profit organization that hires attorneys and experts to stop the proposal. After raising $300,000 to $400,000 to assess an idea that will redevelop the area into a river park, they now plan to raise more money to purchase the property from the Weddington family.
“We’ve got almost 19 million people in the greater Los Angeles area. That’s inevitably going to change things,” says 74-year-old Don Allison, a life-long resident of the area. “You can’t just suddenly say. Stop!” Allison flips through a Los Angeles history book at Bookstar. He looks at before and after pictures of the city. Allison says change is nothing new. “I’ve seen the valley go from agricultural to being residential to now being more commercial,” he says.
Allison fondly remembers being a little boy when red trolley cars ran through the streets. He says it would be nice if the cars were still there because of their historical value. On the other hand, he remembers watching people get run over by the cars. “I saw so many accidents when I was a kid, it was painful,” Allison says.
Allison grew up to run an international merchandise brokerage business then became a college economics professor. “I don’t think, as an economist, better. I’m not a person that looks back and says, ‘That was better then. This is better now.’ Life has changed and life will change,” he says. “And it’s changing rapidly.”
Allison says some buildings are of historical value, but as long as they are profitable. “If you can’t make them profitable, nobody wants to go in it. It looks shabby. It’s no fun. It’s just standing there,” he says, adding that he looks forward to all of the new developments in Studio City.
Down the street from the Sportsmen’s Lodge is Carney’s Express, an old Pacific Railroad passenger train converted into a burger shop that’s been around since 1981. The restaurant manager, Marco Pacheco says he’s excited about the benefit these developments will have on businesses. “I like businesses to do well,” Pacheco says. “I want people to succeed and if there’s more businesses succeeding, that means that the community is getting some benefit out of it.
Pacheco says keeping up with the bills is especially hard for family owned restaurants like Carney’s Express. Due to recent water shortages from the drought, prices on food supplies have gone up, especially for meat. He says that the price on supplies has been going up 15 to 20 percent every four to six months. Instead of raising prices on the menu, he says it is better to have an increased customer flow, which he believes the redevelopments will bring.
“It may sound hectic because they say it’s going to be more traffic, more people, but somehow it brings more money. So, it enhances the economy,” Pacheco says. “I think it’s great for the business.”
Harvard-Westlake High School
But some residents, frustrated by development, say they don’t see the changes as a question of whether or not the city should progress. “Progress is okay, but it’s important for it to be managed, and it has to make sense,” says Alex Izbicki, who lives in Coldwater Canyon, which composes the bottom portion of Studio City.
Izbicki says the canyon is home to thousands of residents who chose to live there for the tranquility of nature.
A drive through Coldwater Canyon is filled not only with mountainous bends and towering trees but hundreds of white signs with bold red letters.
The signs read, “Say ‘NO’ to two years of construction — airborne pollutants and traffic delays,” and other similar messages.
In the heart of Coldwater Canyon is Harvard-Westlake, a high school that plans to construct a three-story, 750-space parking lot structure on a 5.5 acre vacant property owned by the school on the other side of the street. It will also feature an athletic field on top and a bridge over Coldwater Canyon Avenue that will connect it to the main campus.
Izbicki’s house, which overlooks Harvard-Westlake, is separated from the school by only about 200 to 300 feet. The property values of homes in a half-mile radius of the school average from $1 to 3 million according to Zillow, an online real estate database.
As a real estate agent, Izbicki says people want to live on Coldwater because of the peace, solitude, and green nature that the canyon provides. “We just don’t want to become another community that’s just lost in traffic and overconstruction to the point where we lose our identity,” he says.
He and about 1,100 other community members have banded together in a group called Save Coldwater Canyon. “We live here as well as they do. We have to cooperate,” Izbicki says. “We have to live in concert.” He says that when they don’t work together, residents take it upon themselves to fight. Izbicki says he and other neighbors wish the school had contacted the residents for opinion and feedback before submitting plans to the city.
But John Amato, the vice president of Harvard-Westlake sees their relationship differently. “We think we’re pretty good neighbors. We are forward looking in a community way,” Amato says. “We want to be in this neighborhood. We have been in this neighborhood for years. We want to continue to be in the neighborhood. That’s never been a question, and we want to be helpful to the neighborhood in every possible way we can.” The school has been on that property since 1937.
Amato says the main purpose of the structure is safety. “What we’re trying to do is take care of safety, take care of parking, and really making the area around the neighborhood better and more conducive to a safe positive environment,” he says.
But Amato’s vision might even be lost on the Harvard-Westlake students for whom the structure will be built. “The thing is, the parking spots, there are a limited number. But, it’s not like it’s that bad,” says Cameron Wood, a senior at the school. “Most people have parking spots that want them.” Wood, who has the ability to drive, mostly takes the bus to school from his home near Santa Monica. He says that many of his friends who do drive choose not to.
Weddington Golf and Tennis Courts
Residents like Laurie Cohn, the vice president of Save LA River Open Space say there is a conflict of interest. “It’s a battle because developers come in and see potential, yet the community is the one that’s going to live with the traffic and live with the cars and live with people parking in their neighborhood and everything else it brings, so there’s two sides to everything, unfortunately,” she says.
That is why Cohn wants to take development matters into her own hands. She has spent the past 15 years working with Save LA River Open Space to stop Weddington Golf and Tennis from realizing its condominium plan by eventually purchasing the 16-acre parcel of land. “Our goal is ultimately to somehow workout an agreement to purchase the property from the owners,” she says. “We don’t want to steal it. We want to purchase it.” She says the price could range anywhere from $20 million to $60 million.
Cohn says that Save LA River Open Space plans to develop the area into a cutting-edge river park that would capture run-off water from 200 surrounding acres from rainwater and dry weather runoff from sprinklers. She says the water would be captured, cleaned under the property, then discharged either back into the aquifer or into the LA River. Cohn says that the property is currently zoned for agricultural, meaning no commercial buildings, and that’s the way she hopes to keep it.
Studio City’s minimal commercial development and neighborhood feel are what have attracted people like Rebecca Abano, a Sherman Oaks resident. For years she had brought her daughter to the Studio City Recreation Center, also known as Beeman Park, a 9-acre park with four baseball fields, four tennis courts, four basketball courts, and a small multipurpose room.
“My daughter grew up in this park. She played soccer. We played a little tennis. She had birthday parties there when she was younger,” Abano says. “It’s a nice community park. It’s quiet.”
Abano works for Los Angeles’ Recreational and Cultural Facilities Program, also known as Proposition K, which generates $25 million each year from annual property assessment taxes to be put towards various improvement and restoration projects relating to parks, recreation and open spaces around Los Angeles.
One such project is the redevelopment of Beeman Park, and Abano was designated as the project manager. Although Proposition K has been around since 1997, in which 123 projects have been completed, Beeman Park only began receiving funds in 2013. Before Beeman Park, nine other projects were completed in Studio City.
Abano is hopeful yet slightly uneasy about this $3 million project, called the Studio City Gym Project, which is only in the pre-design phase. “I understand the inconvenience of having construction in your backyard. I just got done with my neighbor building a house right next to my house,” Abano says. She says she wants to see the community happy with a new modern gym, but wants it to be as painless as possible by getting it done in a short time frame. Right now, construction is planned to begin September 2017 and last until March 2019.
But Abano says she is aware of the potential resistance to come. “Every project we have, there are people who are for it or against it,” she says. “What’s really important to me is listening. I like to listen to the people.” Abano says listening can be difficult when sometimes the loudest people actually represent the minority. “That is the trick. To really find out what everybody really wants because sometimes you can get distracted by the loud few.”
Pinz Bowling Center
But business owners like Scott Frager of Pinz Bowling Center say staying in tune with the community has always been important to their business.
Pinz, which has been around for over half of a century has undergone major redevelopments with a $150,000 upgrade two-and-a-half years ago and with a near $300,000 upgrade beginning this week.
Frager says being an important part of the community means being plugged into it. “By giving back to the community and getting involved with them, we keep our historical significance, but we are afforded the ability to upgrade. So we don’t have to be the same look and feel of 1958 today to still be connected with the history and center of the city,” he said.
Frager has lived in Studio City for close to 30 years. He says the city’s changes are important for growth. “Customers want something fresh and new. They want a connection to the past, but they don’t want to bowl or eat in a place that isn’t well-kept,” Frager says. “So the concern on the citizen side is, can you redevelop and still keep a flavor of what the city is?” Frager says he is very convinced you can as he has done with his business. Pinz sponsors Little League, volunteers time at the Los Angeles Police Department, provides complimentary birthday and graduation events for Los Angeles Unified School District students, and caters to kids in the foster care program.
The four-year Pinz employee, Christopher Williams, says he is gladly accepting these changes. Williams grew up in the area and chose to go to community college so he could continue to work at the place he loves.
“I’ve been here so long because it’s so fantastic. Such a great place to work. The networking possibilities are fantastic and just the clientele in Studio City is amazing,” he says.
As an actor, Williams says living there has served its age-old purpose living up to its name as a “studio” city. He aspires to become the next big emcee or television host. He says Studio City has played an important role in him making connections since there are so many entertainment industry executives around in addition to the celebrities.
But in a few months, Williams will be leaving Studio City. He will be going off to college as he transfers to the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says that the outward appearance of the area may change but its character remains constant. When he returns, he hopes that no matter what the city looks like, it will continue to help him network in the entertainment business.
“You have to understand that society is a forever changing thing,” Williams says. “Dynamics of everything change and with that is the change of appearance, as well.”