A partnership of a commercial developer and the May Co. has been systematically buying residential property surrounding the small Laurel Plaza shopping center in North Hollywood as part of a plan to replace the center with a giant, four-department-store mall and a 10-story office tower.
The project would cost more than $100 million. But it must be approved by the Los Angeles Planning Commission, and construction would not begin for several years, said Joan Kradin, spokeswoman for the developer, Forest City Commercial Development.
It would be the San Fernando Valley's seventh major mall.
Kradin said her company chose the site at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and the Hollywood Freeway because their studies showed a demand for "improved retail in that community" and because May Co. already has a store and regional administrative offices at the existing center.
She emphasized that the project still is in its planning infancy.
However, New Laurel Associates--the partnership--has been buying residential property crucial to the developer's mall plans for more than two years, according to documents filed with the city Planning Department and conversations with residents of the area surrounding the site.
Leveling of nearby houses and rebuilding a parochial school on a site across the street from the shopping center would make room for one of the department stores and a parking structure, according to preliminary plans submitted to the Planning Department. It also would allow the company to close a block in the surrounding neighborhood.
Residents worry that the huge development would increase traffic, noise and air pollution, as well as decrease property values.
To move the school, the partnership must gain approval of Emmanuel Lutheran Church's congregation. Church leaders say a vote of church members will not take place until the partnership submits more definitive plans for the mall.
In return for the church giving up the existing site of Laurel Hall Elementary and Preschool, the developer has proposed building an $8-million school next door to the church at 6020 Radford Ave. Congregation President William H. Taron said the only hitch he envisions is that the developer has said the church might be asked to pay $1 million of that cost.
"That, of course, is going to be a reach for us," he said.
Some residents of the area surrounding the mall site said Taron kept them in the dark about plans for the huge mall.
Bernard Langer has lived in a house behind the church since 1953. In February, 1986, he received a letter signed by Taron. It said "an anonymous donor" was interested in buying Langer's home for "the eventual use and improvement of Emmanuel Lutheran Church."
No Mention of Mall
"This is an opportunity for you to dream about things which may not otherwise be possible," Taron continued in the letter. Nowhere in the letter were the school, the developer or the mall mentioned.
Six property owners sold their homes to New Laurel Associates. Langer and two other homeowners held out.
"I don't want to be pushed . . . ," said Langer, 88. "Changes at this stage in your life you do not do."
Taron, an attorney, said Thursday that he did not intend to mislead Langer or any of the other homeowners. He said he did not want to inflate property values with news of the proposed mall.
"When I spoke with people individually, I mentioned it," he said. "But when it becomes directly known, then speculators come in . . . people come in and acquire the property with the intention of selling it to the project."
Another angry neighbor, Robert Carcia, has organized a group called People to Preserve Carpenter Avenue. He said he has gathered more than 100 signatures on an anti-mall petition.
Even after he heard about the mall project through a concerned church member and arranged meetings with representatives of New Laurel Associates, Carcia said he was not told about the office tower proposed for the corner of the freeway and Oxnard Street.
The tallest buildings on surrounding streets are 5 stories tall, and Carcia said he fears the proposed office tower would encourage bigger buildings in the area.
"It's going to stick out like a sore thumb," he said.
When asked about Carcia's accusations, Kradin said she could not "speak toward people's perceptions." But she said "we have attempted with the neighborhood to be straightforward about our plans."
New Laurel Associates has arranged a community meeting May 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the church to answer questions from neighborhood residents, she said.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church and May Co. have worked closely for years, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Andrew Jensen. In 1957, the church gave May Co. a piece of land that the department store wanted to use for a delivery entrance. In return, May Co. donated the land where the church now stands.
Jensen said the mall has been talked about off and on since the late 1970s.
Generally, Jensen and Taron said they believe the majority of church members support moving the school, but church bylaws require approval by the congregation.
Nearly 400 Enrolled
While the school, with an enrollment of nearly 400 children, needs repairs, and while a new school would be welcome, Jensen agreed with Taron that the size of the church's share of the cost would be pivotal to the congregation's decision.
In the preliminary plan filed with the Planning Department, the mall is described as more than 1 million square feet of stores, including a large "food court" and a cinema inside a 3- to 4-floor building. The mall would be surrounded by 3- to 5-level garages with parking for nearly 5,000 cars, according to the application. The office tower would add 200,000 square feet, the plan says.
Only May Co. is committed to the project so far, Kradin said, but the company "has had conversations with several other stores."
The developer must now submit an extensive environmental-impact report to the Planning Department by mid-May. The report would be followed by a series of public hearings.