If all goes according to Eddie J. Milligan’s grand plans, it will be horse heaven at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in about a year.
Where dilapidated, manure-clogged stables once stood, and overflowing cesspools and broken bleachers prohibited major equestrian events, the former jockey-turned-developer has dreams of building “the horse capital of California.”
After five years and three failed attempts to attract a private concessionaire to rebuild the equestrian center in Lake View Terrace, the city of Los Angeles has awarded a lease for the site to Milligan, who for 27 years has designed and built luxurious equestrian facilities.
Milligan, who designed the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park, plans to build a “full-service” horse center that will include six lighted riding arenas, 300 boarding stalls, a riding academy, veterinary clinic, and facilities for public picnics and hayrides.
However, the plans have raised eyebrows among some members of east San Fernando Valley equestrian groups, who fear that the facility will be too expensive for their middle-class pocketbooks.
“We wanted meat and potatoes and got pheasant under glass,” said Sheila Mears, president of the 250-member Valley Horse Owners Assn. “The community wanted something rough and ready and Western-theme oriented. We are watching this closely. But we do want to support the facility because without it we would have nothing there.”
Despite rapid growth in flatland areas of the East Valley, communities at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains--Sunland, Tujunga, La Tuna Canyon and parts of Lake View Terrace--have stayed true to their image of being among the last rural outposts in Los Angeles. Modest houses with back-yard stables are commonplace, feed stores dot Foothill Boulevard and dirt trails along streets accommodate riders. About 75% of the Valley properties zoned for horses are in the area.
Equestrians in the area say what they need most is a public arena for shows and riding lessons, not a hoity-toity equestrian center.
“People are concerned that the new center is going to be very grandiose and not in keeping with what is here in the community,” said Lew Snow, a Lake View Terrace activist.
To appease those who cannot afford country-club horse boarding, the city will require Milligan to keep prices in accord with other local stables, which rent stalls for $130 to $250 a month. Initial rent levels and future hikes must be approved by the Recreation and Parks Commission.
“We have made it very candid with Milligan that this is a working-class neighborhood and we want a working-class facility,” said Rick Sessinghaus, supervisor of administrative services for the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department.
Also of concern to many residents and city officials are the financial troubles of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. That $10-million, 72-acre facility--with a covered riding arena, stalls for 700 horses, nine riding rings, banquet facilities and a polo field--is touted as one of the finest equestrian centers in the country, but has been unable to turn a profit since its 1982 opening.
Despite the wealth of many who ride at Griffith Park and the center’s many prestigious horse shows, business was not sufficient for its operators to make payments on the facility’s construction loans. The firm operating the center, Equestrian Centers of America, filed for bankruptcy in 1985 and became entangled in a litany of multimillion-dollar lawsuits with its principal creditor, Gibraltar Savings.
Gibraltar took over the center in 1988. In February, a Burbank development firm bought the center for $3.6 million from insolvent Gibraltar.
Kenneth Mowry, present general manager of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, would not comment on whether the Hansen facility would siphon away business and said comparing the two would be mixing “apple and oranges.”
Milligan, whose Hansen facility will be two-thirds smaller than the Griffith Park center and cost about $1.5 million, believes that he can create a profitable niche by “catering to the pinto pony or the grand prix jumper.” By financing the project himself, he won’t have the interest payments that saddled the Griffith Park operators.
By offering one-hour horseback rides to the public, renting the center for picnics and scheduling outdoor dances, he believes that he can draw in a healthy business from beginning equestrians.
City officials said that to turn a profit, the Hansen facility must also offer the serious equestrian such amenities as enclosed stalls, a tack shop and blacksmith services, and be able to sponsor major horse shows.
Milligan is convinced that the facility’s location in the heart of the Valley’s horse-keeping community, close to freeways and at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with their numerous horse trails, will increase his chances of success.
The parks department has been trying since 1985 to find a developer to renovate the 25-acre site in return for a 20-year contract with the city to run the center. The agreement called for a minimum payment to the city of $20,000 a year or 2% to 4% of gross income from various services at the site.
Milligan was the lone bidder in a 1989 search by the Recreation and Parks Department for a developer to rebuild and operate an equestrian facility there.
The department leases the land at 11127 Orcas Ave. from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Hansen Dam property.
“Basically, after putting this out to bid four times, Eddie was the only one willing to go up there and build,” Sessinghaus said. “It became a decision of whether to go with him or close down.”
The new center is viewed by community leaders and parks officials as a crucial element of the overall revival of the Hansen Dam Recreation Area.
The area has languished for more than a decade since built-up silt finally choked the once-popular lake. At the same time, another popular attraction, the public equestrian facility, fell into disrepair. Both are to be revitalized according to plans now in the works.
For more than 35 years, the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center has been a fixture in Lake View Terrace, offering public boarding stalls, horse rides and show rings. But by the mid-1980s, skyrocketing liability insurance prohibited the former operator from making enough money to invest in basic improvements.
The run-down site was a source of ire among many local horse enthusiasts, who lobbied parks officials to find another operator rather than shut down the troublesome facility.
Sessinghaus said Milligan’s plan surpassed city requirements for the site. For instance, the city required a concessionaire to provide only 80 boarding stalls and two riding rings.
A city review of Milligan’s past projects, including construction of the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach, and his finances indicated that he could handle the job.
Milligan sold his interest in the Huntington center for about $1 million and put his Arcadia home up as collateral to finance the Hansen project, Sessinghaus said. In addition, Milligan said he sold property at the Arcadia site of his development firm, Better Built Enterprises.
While Milligan awaits final approval of his plans from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city has given him a short-term contract to begin preliminary construction work.
One time-consuming snag blocking the project’s approval has been completion of a detailed study of the project’s impact on the environment, including a Gabrieleno Indian burial site near the center’s entrance. To avoid disturbing the burial site, Milligan proposes a grassy picnic and riding area on the land.
In the past several months, he has renovated the rickety red barn and office building, and has installed a lighted parking area. The 60-year-old builder can often be seen grading the site using his own tractor and hammering stakes into the ground to designate areas for landscaping and future barns and riding rings.
“This is something I have wanted to do for 27 years,” Milligan said. “I want to provide a country club atmosphere for the general public.”