On Thursday evening, as the sun sank and the air cooled, neighbors on Butler Avenue in West Los Angeles were starting to come outside. Cameron Neff, who inherited a house last year from his grandparents, bumped into his neighbor Paul Fitzgerald, a retiree who moved onto the block in 1975.
This two-block stretch of Butler is, like so many of the residential streets around here, modest but sweet. Many of the single-family homes retain their original ranch-style aesthetic. Bracketed on the south by the Santa Monica Freeway and on the north by a gate that prevents through traffic from Pico Boulevard, Butler is also, oddly, a quiet oasis in the middle of a noisy city.
Years ago, before the gate went up, nearby auto shops on Pico and Gateway boulevards would race down Butler to test their customers’ new brakes.
“There were a lot of little kids living here,” said Fitzgerald, 76. “We were afraid someone was going to get killed.”
He and his neighbors, including Neff’s grandparents, banded together and petitioned the city to let them close off the northern end of the street, turning a thoroughfare into a cul-de-sac. Each homeowner kicked in about $100. After that, the street quieted down.
Now Butler Avenue is facing a different challenge.
As the city of Los Angeles sets its sights on increased density to accommodate our ever-growing population, a proposed five-story apartment complex at the top of the block — where Gateway, Pico and Exposition boulevards converge — has many nearby homeowners worried that the character of their peaceful, low-slung neighborhood will be lost in the shadow of a looming apartment complex.
They are particularly upset because the city has given the developer — at no cost — a 100-foot alley that divides the land into two separate parcels. If the alley were kept intact, the project would be doomed. Or dramatically scaled back.
I got interested in this corner of the city after learning that a half-dozen family- and immigrant-owned businesses, including Big O Tires and the Mexican restaurant Tacomiendo, will be displaced from a strip mall called Gateway Center to make way for the 129-unit, five-story residential complex when their leases expire.
None has been able to find suitable replacement space on the Westside. Rents, as the man once said, are too damn high.
Is this a life-and-death issue?
Of course not.
It’s merely a symptom of the intentional transformation of Los Angeles from a spread out, car-dependent collection of neighborhoods to a more crowded, taller megalopolis where you can get around by using public transit and your bike. Whether you like it or not.
“The mayor wants to make L.A. a denser city,” said Al Casas, a business owner and community activist who helped found the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council 16 years ago. “Increased density is inevitable. But they are going overboard.”
Dana Sayles represents the Kirshner family, which owns and is developing the property. She agreed that the city is in a painful moment of transition. The new Expo Line, for instance, is a short walk away.
“All this investment in transit doesn’t work unless they allow this density to happen,” Sayles said. “I believe in density. I grew up on the East Coast, where cities only function because there is a critical mass.”
The only way to preserve old neighborhoods like Butler Avenue, she said, is to concentrate density along the city’s boulevards — like Gateway and Pico — and in projects like this one, which will have 63 studios, 60 one-bedrooms and six two-bedroom units. A handful will be designated for low-income renters, which also lets the developer increase the number of legally allowable units by 35%.
After neighbors gave her an earful, said Sayles, the project was redesigned and scaled down. The highest part of the complex will be at the front, along Gateway, rather than at the back, where it would tower over Butler’s single-story homes.
That has not allayed the concerns of neighbors like Gayle Gould, who bought a house on Butler three years ago. She’s disturbed about the inevitable increase in traffic along Pico and Exposition boulevards, which are already gridlocked at 5 p.m.
“It’s going to be a horror,” she said. “We’re going to be trapped.”
Some Butler Avenue neighbors had worried that the developers would try to remove the street’s famous gate, making it a through-way again, but Sayles said that was never an option. “We might replace it with a nicer gate,” she said, “but it will never be open.”
This will come as good news to Fitzgerald, who told me, “If that gate goes, it’s over my dead body.”
I met Casas at Tacomiendo the other day to talk about the public alley that runs behind the restaurant and Big O Tires and is mostly used by the auto shops to park cars.
The landowners asked the city to “vacate,” or give them the alley, so they could join their two parcels into a single one-acre plot. Without the alley, the project that’s now envisioned would not have been viable.
David Graham-Caso, spokesman for L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, said that because the alley is not used as a thoroughfare, and only one property owner (the Kirshner family) was involved, the Bureau of Engineering agreed to give up the alley. Sayles confirmed to me that no money changed hands in the transaction.
This irritates folks like Casas, who for years chaired the neighborhood council’s planning and land use committee.
“I think it’s outrageous,” he told me, standing in the alley, gesturing at the cars. “You are giving up this property for nothing, essentially. The developer just assumed that because they’d been using this alley as a parking lot for all these years that we would just give it to them. They should have been paying rent on it the whole time.”
The Planning Commission approved the project, but last week, 29 residents of Butler Avenue and Colby Avenue, which is also affected by the project, filed an appeal.
“We completely object and oppose the city giving away public property to a private developer for a private project,” they wrote. “The developer should not be able to take away the alley to boost their own benefits and harm other properties on these two streets.”
I don’t know if the neighbors will prevail. This town’s politics are stacked in favor of developers. But these locals are nothing if not tenacious. Years ago, they got their gate. Maybe this time around, they’ll get the alley.