Apartments' Relentless Gains Bring City to Southeast Valley

Times Staff Writer

For four hours every weekday, commuter traffic clogs the residential Sherman Oaks street where Ed Wilkes, 71, and his wife have lived since 1948. The street was relatively quiet until a few years ago. "We just feel the city pressing in on us," he said.

Down the block, Paul Lobosco, 26, lives in a five-story apartment building. He moved to Sherman Oaks last year "to stay outside of downtown and still be in a city."

Wilkes and Lobosco are on opposite ends of apartment construction that is changing the nature of the San Fernando Valley. New projects--and new people--can be found almost everywhere, but the most dramatic changes are along the Valley's southeastern edge.

City records show that 15,328 apartments were built and 1,340 single-family homes demolished between April, 1980, and September, 1986, in an area roughly stretching west from Burbank to the San Diego Freeway, and north from the Santa Monica Mountains to Sherman Way.

"We're undergoing the kinds of pressure that Eastern cities faced in the latter part of the 19th Century," said David Hornbeck, professor of economics and geography at California State University, Northridge. Until recently, growth in Los Angeles has sprawled outward with the reliance on automobile transportation, he said.

"You still have that occurring," Hornbeck said, "but you have such a tremendous increase in population, so much so that there are those who simply cannot afford buying a house on the periphery. . . . It's creating a pressure to build up."

Privacy and Traffic

The growth is changing life styles.

Homeowners complain that the new projects cause traffic problems, ruin views and invade privacy. The city has reacted by imposing building moratoriums in some areas while developing permanent restrictions on high-density projects.

Moreover, the spreading urbanization has a more abstract quality. Longtime residents who saw a rural life style give way to suburbs are now greeted with a glimpse of life in the big city.

Marla Bishop, 51, said she and her husband will consider moving out of their Vesper Avenue home in Sherman Oaks next spring. Their block is zoned for single-family houses and is not threatened by large projects, but the neighborhood just isn't the same since apartments were built on adjacent blocks, she said.

Some homes on the block have been burglarized, cars have been stolen from driveways and more traffic travels faster on the street in front of her home, Bishop said.

"It's getting too much like downtown L.A.," she said. "It's not suburbia anymore."

The replacement of single-family homes with apartment buildings in Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood and Studio City is the most stark element in a gradual transition from suburban to urban life.

The forces driving the construction are not themselves extraordinary. The Valley's population, estimated at more than 1.1 million, would by itself constitute the sixth-largest city in the United States, with more people than Detroit or Dallas as of 1984. Valley population is projected to reach nearly 1.5 million by the year 2010, according to estimates by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

At that rate, the association predicts, the number of dwelling units will increase 30% and the number of jobs 46% during the same period.

24% Increase in Jobs

Between 1982 and 1984 alone, the Valley experienced a 24% increase in jobs, from about 425,000 to 527,000, according to Western Economic Research Co., an Encino-based business research firm. More jobs bring a "self sufficiency," according to the research firm, which estimated that a greater share of Valley residents have found work here.

"The Valley has long since left its status as a bedroom community," said Wilbur McCann, president of Western Economic Research.

For example, commercial development in Canoga Park and Woodland Hills, which includes the Warner Center business park, added 5,930 offices from April, 1980 to September, 1986--more than any other area in the city besides downtown and the Wilshire District, according to city records.

The second-fastest area of commercial growth in the Valley encompassed Encino and Tarzana, with a gain of 3,590 new offices.

The Chatsworth-Porter Ranch area experienced the city's greatest increase by far in industrial development since 1980, gaining 1,220 industrial or manufacturing facilities since 1980.

Apartment development has gravitated to the East Valley because of its older housing stock and lower land values, contrasted with the West Valley, Hornbeck said. Also, easy access from the Ventura Freeway to the San Diego and Hollywood freeways makes the East Valley attractive to young people and working couples unable to afford their own homes, he said.

Central Location

Laurie Garber, 23, said she and a roommate moved into an apartment at Sepulveda and Valley Vista boulevards because "it's central to where I work and where my roommate works." Garber is a hairdresser in Tarzana, and her roommate, also a 23-year-old woman, works at a Westwood advertising firm, she said.

Of 35 planning districts designated by the Los Angeles Planning Department, Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks, which includes Bishop's block, gained 5,666 new apartments from April 1980 to September 1986, the most of any district. North Hollywood came in second, with 5,418 new units in that period.

During the same time, the North Hollywood district lost 421 single-family homes, also more than anywhere else in Los Angeles, according to the city. Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks was close behind with a net loss of 412 single-family homes.

In Burbank, where statistics for the six-year period were not readily available, apartment construction accelerated to "a very peak cycle" in 1986 with the addition of about 1,500 units, said Rick Pruetz, Burbank city planner.

Although apartment demand is most evident in the East Valley, there are other pockets of high-density residential growth in the region.

As a whole, areas of the Valley within Los Angeles gained 31,283 apartments and 5,325 condominiums over the six years.

1,279-Unit Project

One of the most recognizable of the pockets of development is the Warner Center business park in Woodland Hills. The most recent and largest addition to the area's housing stock is the 1,279-unit Warner Center Apartments, built by Beverly Hills developer Alan I. Casden.

Farther west along the Ventura Freeway is another large Casden project, the 698-unit Malibu Canyon Apartments in Calabasas.

Although an estimated 4.8% to 5.7% of all Valley apartments are vacant, contrasted with 4.1% citywide, developers have not overbuilt because demand probably will catch up, said Barbara Zeidman, director of the city's Rent Stabilization Program.

Much of the increased apartment and condominium construction can be attributed to tax-exempt bond financing and federal tax law changes enacted in 1981, said Ben Bartolotto, research director for the Burbank-based Construction Industry Research Board. Under the old tax law, limited partnerships and liberal property depreciation schedules offered tax advantages for apartment builders.

Tax reforms that took effect this year wiped out those advantages and might well have taken some of the steam out of apartment construction, Bartolotto said.

The city issued building permits for 7,212 apartment units in the Valley in 1986. During the first eight months of this year, the first year of tax reform, permits for only 3,646 such units have been issued in the Valley, said Jim Wheeler, a senior administrative assistant with the Department of Building and Safety.

However, builders expect the pace of apartment construction to remain strong in the long run because of continued demand.

High Deterioration Rate

"It probably will taper now that the economics aren't so good but come back again at some point because you still have growth and new households moving into the county," Bartolotto said. "It isn't going to go away."

Casden said the demand is in part strong because "the price of single-family homes is quite high . . . and more units deteriorate in the city of Los Angeles than are being built each year."

In exchange for tax-free bond financing from the city and county, Casden set aside some units in the Warner Center and Malibu Canyon projects for affordable rentals for low- and moderate-income families.

"We're very pleased with how they're renting out," Casden said.

Developer Fred Afari said the most lucrative of his projects have been two in Sherman Oaks, comprising 57 apartments. Afari's Olympic Co., of Canoga Park, sought to build in Sherman Oaks because its access to freeways and the sophisticated atmosphere of nearby Ventura Boulevard make it "one of the hottest locations for residential living," Afari said.

The newest building of 27 apartments was full in five weeks, he said. "The type of tenants we have are mainly young professionals, and the rents in Westwood or West Los Angeles are too high for them," Afari said. About 40% are married and many others share two-bedroom apartments with another young professional, he said.

Complaints about high-density development have prompted the City Council to pass three construction moratoriums in the Valley, all in areas along the Ventura and San Diego freeways in the East Valley.

Ed Wilkes says he is fortunate that his small orchard and a neighbor's tree shade his backyard from the view of most who live in three nearby apartment buildings overlooking his property. But he cannot hide completely.

Barbecuing Over a Fishbowl

"You see them out on their balconies, people sitting outside, barbecuing or taking a sun bath," Wilkes said. "You're kind of like in a fishbowl."

"Low-density units are being destroyed and replaced with high-density projects," said Richard H. Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. "If what has been happening continues, the existing neighborhood will continue to strangle and it will get even worse."

Close's group was a force in persuading the City Council last March to enact a one-year moratorium cutting maximum densities of new apartment projects nearly in half in Sherman Oaks south of Ventura Boulevard.

A moratorium in the Valley Village area of North Hollywood has been in effect for nearly a year and is expected to be extended Tuesday by the council. It includes density and height restrictions as well as added parking requirements for new apartment projects.

A third measure, covering parts of Van Nuys, North Hollywood and north Sherman Oaks, was passed Tuesday by the council and is awaiting Mayor Tom Bradley's signature. The one-year moratorium deals mainly with the bulk of new multi-unit buildings, imposing so-called transitional height restrictions. Projects closer than 50 feet from a single-family residence are limited to two stories, and those 50 to 100 feet away are restricted to three stories. Projects more than 100 feet away are exempt.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky sponsored the two moratoriums affecting Sherman Oaks, which he said was not meant to be an urban center.

"There are degrees of urbanization, and Sherman Oaks is more of a suburban environment and wants to retain more of a suburban environment than a major urban center," Yaroslavsky said.

He added, "I guess maybe now is the time to ask the question: Do we want Sherman Oaks to be an extraordinarily high-density commercial and residential center in the San Fernando Valley, or do we want to retain the qualities that have characterized it for the last 20 or 30 years? I obviously believe the latter is the appropriate choice."

Movements have arisen to control apartment growth elsewhere in the Valley. Councilman Ernani Bernardi last month proposed a building moratorium in his northeast Valley district. Councilwoman Joy Picus last month engineered community plan changes to prevent apartment construction in two mostly single-family Reseda neighborhoods.

In Burbank, Mayor Michael R. Hastings has proposed density and height restrictions as well, and an ordinance is being prepared by the city attorney's office, Pruetz said.

Site Appeal

But the building restrictions are not embraced by all homeowners, especially those who live near new apartment buildings and find their houses now worth less as single-family homes than as sites for apartment buildings.

Herbert and Juanita Petzold said the density reductions in the north Sherman Oaks moratorium mean they will not get close to the $300,000 they once were offered by developers for their house on Moorpark Street in Sherman Oaks. Yet apartments on the block have made selling their house as a home nearly impossible, they said.

A three-story stucco building rises like a gray ship's hull above the side of the Petzold house, and, in the afternoons, Juanita Petzold, 61, must turn on lamps for lack of sunlight, she said.

"I fought the buildings to no avail, so I figured we'd join them," Herbert Petzold, 66, said. "And when they down-zoned . . . we got shafted." He said he hopes to take advantage of a hardship exemption in the ordinance.

Los Angeles police have reacted to higher density by creating an "Apartment Watch" program to complement its "Neighborhood Watch," which encourages homeowners to help prevent crime, said Deputy Chief Ron Frankle, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Bureau.

Apartment neighborhoods are harder to patrol because officers passing in a squad car cannot easily see what is happening inside a building or complex, where residents might not know each other, Frankle said. The Apartment Watch program "helps people to harden the target and better look out for each other in that environment," he said.

Traffic Trauma

"Another problem that impacts on us is that, as the density of population grows . . . and as the congestion increases and the traffic slows, we are getting people who are taking more chances and running signals and doing other undisciplined things that drivers do," Frankle said.

Traffic congestion is also a concern of transportation officials. "All this development is happening, and you see, on a daily basis, traffic getting gradually worse," said Viggen Davidian, principal transportation planner for the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Continued growth is forcing planners and public officials to look beyond low-cost, short-term improvements such as computerizing traffic signals, restricting parking on busy streets or limiting commercial deliveries to certain hours, he said.

A new north-south freeway traversing the West Valley and an upper deck on parts of the Ventura, Hollywood and San Diego freeways were among a set of proposals endorsed in September by the San Fernando Valley Area Transportation Study Committee, an advisory group created by the state Legislature to suggest solutions to traffic problems in the Valley. The state Department of Transportation is studying the double-deck freeway proposal.

A four-year, $90-million widening of the Ventura Freeway by one lane in each direction is expected to begin next month. The project has caused some concern about how construction will affect traffic, but, when finished, it is expected to relieve congestion on the freeway--at least temporarily.

High-Rise Moratorium

Government attempts to manage traffic and growth in general along the corridor include a commercial high-rise moratorium--extended last month for two years--along Ventura Boulevard from Universal City to Woodland Hills. City planners and citizen advisory committees also are studying transportation patterns on Ventura Boulevard and in the Warner Center area with a view toward formulating ways of mitigating congestion.

In the long run, Davidian said, he foresees traffic "overflow" if mass transit solutions are not found.

"It's going to get to a point where the public asks the politicians to do something very drastic about it, like totally banning growth, or they're going to have to build and finance high-capacity transportation systems, because the growth is going to happen," he said.

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