Fight erupts over keeping Toluca Lake a small pond
Eighty-year-old Josie Benveniste remains committed to bringing a mixed-use development – apartments stacked on shops – to the block she owns. Envisioning the development as a legacy and money-making business, Benveniste and her late husband, Chic, hoped to leave it to their children, who today mainly run the family’s Toluca Lake Florist shop at Riverside Drive and Cahuenga Boulevard. But just as the family was about to move forward with construction this year, the effort stalled as Roy Disney, president of the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce and the nephew of the legendary Walt Disney, fought to have a 1920s house at the site declared a historic monument. The request was approved last month by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, although it will take about two months to work its way through the Los Angeles City Council and become official. With its historic status, developers will be unable to immediately raze the home – which could cut in half the number of apartments that could be on the site, Benveniste said. TOLUCA LAKE – With its white picket fences, delicate rose bushes and budding cherry blossoms, Toluca Lake seems more like a quiet, charming Southern town than a community divided by political strife. But residents are split over plans to build a condominium and apartment complex in this genteel community tucked between Burbank and North Hollywood. And unlike other disputes, in which residents find themselves battling deep-pockets developers, in this one the homeowners find themselves flush with cash. “Usually the criticism is money talks and that citizens don’t have the money,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan Los Angeles-based nonprofit. “In this case, it’s the other way around.” But the story remains far from over. “I don’t know how (Disney) got away with it,” said Benveniste. “It’s politics. It’s who he is.” Disney did not return phone calls. Sheryl Appleton, a director on the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce, said growth is inevitable but should fit a community’s character. Local streets in Toluca Lake, for example, are not designed to handle extra traffic that new developments could bring, she said. “We’re concerned that we will lose the village atmosphere and it will no longer be a pedestrian-friendly community,” Appleton said. “We’re for smart growth, not crazy growth.” A few blocks away, on Talofa Avenue, sits a quaint white-and-brick house with tiny purple flowers sprouting in its windowboxes. Developers have proposed replacing the house with a 45-foot-high building with eight condominium units and underground parking. The project has sparked ire among some nearby homeowners, who have mobilized to fight the plan with protest signs on their lawns and a Web site called www.save tolucalake.com. The group says the development could draw more traffic to their street, which already is congested because of a grocery store on the corner. “There’s a family value about this neighborhood and this project is not what we signed up for when we moved here,” said resident Mike Teverbaugh. “We want to maintain the character of Toluca Lake.” Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge has proposed downzoning the parcel to two units no higher than 30 feet, saying it will be more compatible with the area’s existing single-family homes. LaBonge, who has also downzoned similar parcels in Silver Lake, said that as open land becomes more scarce in Los Angeles, it’s a balancing act to fit the remaining lots together. “Generally what we’re seeing in greater Los Angeles is an infill of lots that we never thought would be built on,” LaBonge said. “There’s a constant challenge to make sure development goes in the appropriate space.” Michael Walker, project manager for developer Bella Lily LLC and also a Toluca Lake resident, said the downzoning proposal is unfair. Walker said the developer has already spent about $1.8 million on the project. He said he understands residents’ concerns but said living in a metropolitan area means accepting growth – including traffic. “It’s a major city and people who live in a major city cannot expect to live in a farmlike existence,” Walker said. Daniel Blake, director of the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at California State University Northridge, said one solution could be to confine development along public transit routes and leave neighborhoods of single-family homes alone. “I don’t think people in the single-family neighborhoods want to stop the urbanization in the Valley. They just don’t want it in their neighborhood,” Blake said. “You want to be assured that when you buy into the neighborhood that it will stay that way.” While it’s unclear how the Toluca Lake battle will end, community uprisings have a history of packing a powerful political punch. The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association fought for the Valley’s secession movement in 2002 and played an influential role with Proposition 13, a successful 1978 initiative to cap property tax rates in the state. Meanwhile, homeowners on the wealthier side of Canoga Park aligned in the 1980s and lobbied city officials to rename their section of town Mission Hills. Tom Hogen-Esch, political science professor at California State University, Northridge, said Toluca Lake residents’ efforts mirror the city’s growth and political history. “As the Valley has transformed into an increasingly urban area … you’re going to see more and more of these localized battles,” said Hogen-Esch. “There’s a disconnect between the need for more housing and the question of where that housing will go.” Stern said nearly the only part of Los Angeles not seeing a fight over housing is downtown, where city officials are clamoring for residents to move into roomy lofts inside refurbished banks and office buildings. But it’s different in an area like Toluca Lake, which still conjures images of its former legendary residents Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Doris Day and adds a certain elegance to otherwise ordinary addresses. Even around town, locals bicker about where Toluca Lake starts and ends – boundaries that LaBonge’s office said have never been officially defined. Many in town agree, however, that Toluca Lake starts at Riverside Drive and Clybourn Avenue, home to Paty’s Restaurant, a busy diner that has served pancakes and scrambled eggs to the area since 1949. Manager Bob Greene has watched the area around the restaurant grow as fast-food joints and a night club elbowed their way into town. “I think Toluca Lake will always have that small-town feeling, even though it’s in L.A.,” said Greene. Art Anderson, 75, moved to Toluca Lake in 1964 and has seen the area evolve from a series of vacant lots, mom-and-pop gas stations and a drugstore into the bustling area it is today. “Somebody who lived here 40 years ago wouldn’t recognize the place,” said Anderson as he scanned a strip mall on Riverside Drive. “But that’s progress – good or bad.” [email protected] (818)713-3746 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!