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Abandoned project doesn't fit in with Eagle Rock's progress

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To those who live in the hills above Eagle Rock -- iconoclasts and eccentrics, many of them artists and "day sleepers" and people who drop Samuel Beckett lines casually into conversation -- the grassy lot at the end of the main drag was never much of a mystery.

Road workers created it 75 years ago when they lopped off part of a hill. Left behind was an awkward triangle of land wedged between Colorado Boulevard and a cliff, which routinely cast off rocks so porous they crumbled in your hand. The lot was empty, everybody figured, for a reason -- it didn't seem hospitable to construction.

So it came as something of a surprise when, five years ago, developers started making noise about not only building there, but building something ambitious: 17 "live-work" lofts, almost 40,000 square feet worth. It came as less of a surprise when, earlier this year, it started to fall down.

Today, a half-built, block-long still life of concrete and rebar has supplanted the grass and ivy. Cinder-block walls are tagged with graffiti. Trash -- a crumpled milk jug, a condom wrapper -- is caught in the weeds. All of it is framed by 40 towering pillars.

The developer says the project is effectively dead. It's unclear whether anyone -- the developer, the lender, the city -- has the wherewithal or the inclination to do anything about it. Neighbors fear the site could stay this way for years; seeking some sort of progress, they are planning to sprinkle the site with morning glory seeds.

Scattered across Southern California, there are signs of a real estate market gone bad -- empty downtown condos where developers are giving away resort vacations to make sales; hills in Corona that have been denuded in anticipation of houses that won't be built any time soon.

But if you set out to find a singular temple to this sort of thing -- to the excesses of the boom, to the perils of the crash -- residents argue that you could do worse than to settle here.

"This thing," said Terry Parker, who lives up the hill, "was a fiasco from the start."

On Saturday, as many as 20,000 people are expected to attend the 10th annual (and still free) Eagle Rock Music Festival. It will probably be the festival's biggest crowd yet; 74 acts will perform on 16 stages, most lining Colorado.

The festival has become a celebration of local, independent music, not just from Southern California, but from northeast L.A. specifically. An eclectic lineup -- salsa, hip-hop, a marching band -- is also designed to mirror the area's diversity.

Another undercurrent of the festival is a celebration of Eagle Rock itself, which has undergone a renaissance in recent years.

Eagle Rock stumbled into a terrible decline in the 1970s. In the '90s, it began to ascend, fueled by millions of dollars in public and private investments -- and a wave of artists and bohemians priced out of the beach and unimpressed with the hip scenes of Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park.

Along with counterculture types who'd never left, they sought to create a different sort of community on what might be called an urban seam -- not quite city, not quite suburb; edgier and funkier than nearby Glendale and Pasadena, but more forgiving and artsy than the metropolitan center to the south.

By and large, they succeeded. Colorado Boulevard is the most obvious testament -- coffee shops and muffler shops and an old-fashioned hardware store interspersed with galleries, artisans and eateries with Malbec tastings and vegan tempeh balls.

"There is a special flavor here. There is no attitude. You see the same people. You become a regular," said Renee Dominique, director of operations at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock, which is a producer of the music festival. "It has a village feel."

That's why the project has caused such a stir -- because it sits in such jarring contrast to the community's reinvention.

One of the recent efforts has come on the east side, where officials tinkered with traffic lights to improve conditions for pedestrians and volunteers built a welcome-to-town monument -- a stone's throw from the ill-fated construction site.

"Now as soon as you come through that entrance you're smack dab in front of an abandoned, huge, overly tagged piece of concrete," said Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council President Stephan Early, who also teaches Shakespeare at Eagle Rock High. "It's just ugly."

From the start, residents were skeptical. Many weren't sure modern lofts would be a good fit. Some argued it didn't come with enough parking, already a maddening problem. Mostly, they were worried about the cliff.

"It had been decaying. Everybody knew it," said Nancy Parker, 68, Terry Parker's wife and an artist.

"Everybody wanted to know what had changed -- since no one had been able to develop this site before," said Cindy Cobb, another neighbor.

The developers said they had a safe design, and concerned residents couldn't get traction. "They just steamrolled it through," Nancy Parker said.

Construction began in May 2007, and builders were soon carving into the cliff. After a rainstorm, neighbors noticed that some of the pillars were leaning. Part of the cliff had collapsed; there is still a 6-foot-wide boulder sitting in the middle of the site.

"The whole project went dead," said Bob Arranaga, the Neighborhood Council's land use co-chairman and a 26-year Eagle Rock resident.

Neighbors and other Neighborhood Council officials say they suspect the construction, particularly the deep drilling of the pillars, might have contributed to the instability. Now, they say, two houses are perilously close to the edge of a cliff no one trusts. Everyone is worried about property values. The questions are only beginning. "What was the city thinking?" Nancy Parker asked. "Who is responsible?" Cobb wondered.

None of that is clear.

Seven Los Angeles City Hall officials, most from the Department of Building and Safety, either declined to comment or did not return phone calls. An e-mail from the department sent to local officials this week said: "Without an owner to hold responsible, enforcement is close to impossible."

The trustee is listed as San Mateo-based E&F Financial Services Inc. There, a representative who would give his name only as Bill said the developer's loan is in foreclosure. Asked about the future, Bill said: "Your guess is as good as mine."

Developer Fadel Hamdan, president of DHM Lofts, said that the design was sound and that the pillars had nothing to do with the partial collapse of the cliff. The rain, he said, "was just bad timing." He said DHM went to other lenders after the collapse, but none were willing to finance. "If the market was still strong," he said, "it would have been different."

He said DHM has built a number of similar projects, which have been successful. It makes him sad, he said, to know that Eagle Rock is pointing to his site as an emblem of excess and bad planning.

Asked if he technically owns the land at this point, Hamdan said: "I guess." Public documents indicate that the property could be sold later this month at auction. It's unclear who would buy it, given its baggage.

None of that is very comforting in Eagle Rock.

Arranaga said he hopes the city might agree to clear the site, which could then be turned into a satellite parking lot.

"But the sad truth is that everybody is going to try to dodge the bullet," he said. "You now have something that basically is, economically, not feasible. And we are stuck with it."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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