Country Comforts : Tarzana's Melody Acres retains some of Valley's wide-open, rural past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Dan Gordon is a Culver City free-lance writer

Beth Nelson was welcomed to the Melody Acres neighborhood of Tarzana eight years ago by some unusual well-wishers.

"The first thing in the morning I heard this noise," she recalled. "I look out the window and there's a guy walking six of his goats down the street. Big goats, too!"

Described by one resident as "the country in the city," eclectic Melody Acres--where $150,000 fixer-uppers abut $600,000 estates and everyone owns large lots--might be the only neighborhood within a stone's throw of a Starbucks and Baby Gap where the scene Nelson described would barely turn most residents' heads.

In 1988, Nelson and her husband, Greg (both are 41; she sells real estate, and he's an architect), traded in their property in well-to-do Pacific Palisades for a $250,000 three-bedroom three-bath 2,600-square-foot ranch-style home that sits on a half-acre lot on Oxnard Street. The Nelsons--who have a 9-year-old daughter, four cats, three dogs, a pig and plenty of room to spare--haven't looked back.

"I wanted open space," Beth Nelson explained. "I wanted to open the doors and have kids and animals running all over the place."

Situated in the southwest San Fernando Valley, Melody Acres (the neighborhood lore is that it was named for one of its early residents, a singing cowboy) encompasses nearly 300 homes in the area from the Ventura Freeway on the south to Topham Street on the north and from Tampa Avenue on the east to Corbin Avenue on the west.

Although two generations of development have left few remnants of the Valley's wide-open, rural-tinted roots, Melody Acres has remained relatively unchanged, bringing to mind what many view as an idyllic past.

"You have to go back to the 1950s to get a sense of what that neighborhood is like," said Jackie Keane, field deputy to L.A. Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the area.

"Residential agricultural" zoning ensures that each homeowner's lot is a minimum of 17,500 square feet, with wide clearances between houses. The streets lack sidewalks, curbs and gutters. Trees abound and vegetation grows wild. The smell of horses is easily detected. Roosters provide complimentary wake-up service.

"You'd never know you were in the city," said Candace-Marie Rumenapp, an agent with Century 21 Vic Harvey Realtors who has sold houses in the area for 20 years. "The types of people who love it are those who value privacy and that country feel, which reminds them of their childhood."

"This area has changed a lot less than other parts of the Valley," said longtime resident Donna Johnson. When she and her husband, Larry, paid $32,000 for their three-bedroom two-bath home on Shirley Avenue in 1960, the Ventura Freeway had only recently been completed and traffic was nonexistent. Just to the west, corn fields and orange groves were a fixture.

The Johnsons remember talking with neighbors who in the 1940s had used their property as a getaway from the city, pitching a tent there on weekends.

Once the homes were similarly modest in size, but so many residents have put their spacious lots to so many different uses that a typical Melody Acres house has become nearly impossible to find.

Some neighborhood old-timers have left their 800-square-foot homes intact for decades; others, particularly the young families who have bought in recent years, have built up and out. A three-bedroom one-bath house on Shirley Avenue recently sold for $168,500; just a few houses down on the same street, a four-bedroom three-bath home went for $369,000. Each is on a half-acre lot.

There are modern houses with tennis courts and pools alongside country-style ranches; homes with carefully manicured park-like yards and white picket fences adjacent to unkempt eyesores. At times, the view from the street can be misleading. "What's on the other side of a house will shock you--for both good and bad," said one resident, still shaking her head over her discovery of the collection of World War II weaponry one neighbor keeps.

Melody Acres has retained its country feel thanks to the diligence of its residents, who are well organized and quick to fight zoning changes that would enable developers to subdivide the half-acre-plus lots.

Or perhaps Melody Acres has remained relatively untouched by the changes around it because few people know about it. Although Ventura Boulevard bustles just to the south, no one would have reason to drive along the streets that constitute Melody Acres other than the people who live there.

"People will call me and say, 'We've lived in Tarzana for years, and we didn't know the area existed until there was construction and we had to take this side road,' " Rumenapp said.

Robert Forshaw, on the other hand, grew up in Tarzana and knew all about Melody Acres. The 33-year-old owner of an international courier company was living with his wife, Angela, in a tract housing development in nearby Reseda when, in May 1995, Forshaw saw a for-sale sign on a 27,000-square-foot lot in Melody Acres. Because the existing one-bedroom house had become uninhabitable after the Northridge earthquake, the asking price was $210,000. "I scrambled, borrowed a little money and offered nearly full price,' Forshaw said.

The rebuilt house spans 1,600 square feet and is fronted by a 330-foot white wooden fence. The horse stables in back were sold and the pond was filled in, replaced by grass. "We have this huge area where we can have softball games on weekends," Forshaw said. "We sit out with our friends, our neighbors." The Forshaws have a daughter who is almost 2, along with two dogs and a pot-bellied pig.

Robert Forshaw said he believes he has the best of both worlds--open space along with the convenience of being near the freeway and within walking distance of Ventura Boulevard, where he can find a variety of restaurants, shops and entertainment. About the only thing he doesn't like is the Valley's hot summer weather.

Others--particularly those closer to the freeway--complain about the traffic noise. Laura Plotkin, a deputy to Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, notes that Melody Acres residents have been asking for a sound wall to be built along the freeway for years and are "understandably impatient" with the delay.

But freeway sounds notwithstanding, little gets in the way of the neighborhood's tranquillity. Crime in Tarzana as a whole is down 16% from last year, said Ken Knox, senior lead officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. But in Melody Acres, Knox said, it is virtually nonexistent. "It's a tight-knit community. People know each other and look out for each other, and the area itself is just not conducive to crime," Knox said.

Many residents are also attracted by the public schools. Much of Melody Acres is served by the Calvert Street Elementary School, a LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) school that feeds into Parkman Middle School and Taft High School, which are also in the Los Angeles Unified School District's LEARN program.

"There is a lot of continuity and a great deal of articulation among the three schools," said Calvert Principal Shelley Rivlin-Hollis. "When we plan for our kindergarten children, we know what we want them to look like as 18-year-olds."

The large number of children living in Melody Acres was always somewhat masked by the spacious backyards, which kept many kids out of view. That changed several years ago with the establishment of several well-attended annual neighborhood events.

Each year, the Melody Acres Neighborhood Assn. organizes a block party, closing part of Shirley Avenue to traffic. Neighbors mingle in an old-fashioned atmosphere and enjoy food, live music, crafts and games. Other annual events include a Halloween party and a softball game at nearby Tarzana Recreation Center. A newsletter keeps residents in touch with neighborhood activities and concerns.

Ken Topolsky founded the association shortly after he and his wife, Michele (the current chairwoman), bought their 4,000-square-foot Cape Cod-style house on an acre lot on Shirley Avenue in 1991. Michele Topolsky said members of the association have no interest in dictating to residents what they do with their lots, as long as they don't attempt to sell segments smaller than the zoned minimum.

Ken Topolsky said that fighting proposed zoning changes has brought members of the community closer together.

"There's an old-fashioned commitment to a sense that 'place' is important," he said.

"This is such a unique area," added Michele Topolsky , who hours earlier had agreed to horse-sit while a neighbor was away. "We feel it's important to make sure it's preserved."

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At a Glance

Population

1996 estimate: 735

1990-96 change: -12.5%

Annual income

Per capita: 29,631

Median household: 68,382

Household distribution

Less than $30,000: 3.2%

$30,000 - $60,000: 34.6%

$60,000 - $100,000: 36.2%

$100,000 - $150,000: 17.9%

$150,000 + : 7.1%

Melody Acres Home Sale Data *--*

Sample Size 116 (for 10-year period) Ave. home size 1,838 (square feet) Ave. Year Built 1951 Ave. No. Bedrms 2.92 Ave. No. Baths 1.98 Pool 29% View homes 2% Central air 33% Floodzone 53% Price Range $115,000-369,000 (1995-96) Predominant Value $238,000 Age Range 6-81 years Predominant Age 49 years

*--*

Average Sales Data *--*

Year Total $ per Median Sales sq. ft. price 1996* 4 $107.80 $210,000 1995 11 $135.05 $187,500 1994 14 $129.75 $233,000 1993 5 $139.11 $299,000 1992 1 $167.47 $275,000 1991 9 $199.01 $330,000 1990 7 $265.06 $360,000 1989 10 $201.37 $350,000 1988 29 $177.16 $322,000 1987 26 $139.28 $220,000

*--*

*1996 data current through March.

Source: TRW Redi Property Data, Anaheim

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