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An Oak Lives On in W. Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An oak tree that for 200 years stubbornly clung to life in West Hollywood has sprouted some unexpected new greenery--thanks to an equally stubborn group of residents who say they’ve had enough growth of the rampant kind.

Homeowners persuaded city officials to scrap plans to build a five-story apartment house and instead turn land surrounding the coastal live oak into the first new park in the city’s 15-year history.

The successful three-year fight to save the oak will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday when residents and municipal leaders gather beneath its branches to dedicate the half-acre park in the 1000 block of North Kings Road.

Hemmed in on three sides by condominium and apartment buildings, the tiny park is viewed as a victory in a city that is wrestling with development controversies in all directions.

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Earlier this year, some residents were angered over plans to redevelop a three-block section of the famed Sunset Strip. That $250-million project calls for construction of a 10-floor luxury hotel that some complain would block homeowners’ views and violate their privacy.

In May, city planners irritated others by approving the demolition of part of a neighborhood of historic bungalows to make room for a $20-million, 63-unit San Vincente Avenue condominium project.

Residents say that they did not hold out much hope that they could block the construction of the 40-unit Kings Road apartment complex when they learned about it in 1996.

The city’s own nonprofit West Hollywood Community Housing Corp. had acquired the $600,000 site using a city loan. Officials intended to build housing for low-income families and senior citizens.

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The land was originally the garden area for the Dodge Estate, a 1916 mansion built for members of the automotive family. It was covered with more than 50 trees, including a rare ginkgo, giant rubber trees and a pair of towering, 95-year-old bird of paradise plants.

The apartment planners had recognized the need to try to save the oak. Their blueprints called for building an 18-foot concrete box around its trunk and then constructing the apartments around the tree. The tree would grow through a special light shaft that extended through the roof.

Those living on Kings Road at first set out to get the size of the apartment building scaled down.

“We were opposed because of the density of the project and the lack of parking,” said Harry Prongue, a realty agent who has lived nearby for 17 years.

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City Councilman Steve Martin was originally committed to the housing project. But when he visited the site for the first time he said he was surprised when he stepped into what seemed like a forest.

“The tranquillity hit me. You were 100 yards from Santa Monica Boulevard, but it was like you were transported someplace else,” he said Wednesday. “There were bluebirds and meadow larks chirping. Hummingbirds were flying through like maniacs. I was overwhelmed. This deserved to be a park.”

When Martin saw the oak tree he knew it was doomed if apartments were built around it.

“My training from my Boy Scout days told me it wouldn’t survive a year if it was enclosed and its branches heavily trimmed back,” he said.

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With Martin on their side, residents formed the Kings Road Coalition to lobby the city to find a new location for the affordable-housing project and turn the oak lot into a park.

Eventually, Councilmen Sal Gueriello and Paul Koretz voted with Martin to scrap the Kings Road apartments and to buy back the site from the housing corporation and convert it into parkland.

The finished park includes meandering gravel paths, fountains, vine-covered pergolas, a grassy hill and picnic and play areas. A small house has been refurbished as a community meeting room. The park is fenced and will be locked at night for security reasons, said neighbor Barbara Campbell, a Kings Road resident for 12 years.

Martin said his town has learned much from the oak tree.

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“This has been an important civics lesson for the community and the City Council,” he said. “It’s definitely changed the way we will do business from now on in West Hollywood.”


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