Goliath vs. Goliath in Battle to Expand School

Times Staff Writer

Amid the lush, gated estates of Holmby Hills, a battle is raging among the haves ... and the have-mores.

A plan by the Harvard-Westlake School, one of the city's most prestigious private academies, to expand and modernize its historic middle school campus on North Faring Road has prompted well-known residents to emerge from behind their towering hedges to speak out for and against the project.

These are no ordinary neighbors. Supporters include billionaire Anthony Pritzker; Bryan Lourd, a partner with Creative Artists Agency; TV producer Bud Yorkin; and parents whose children have attended, attend or might aspire to attend the school.

Among the opponents are Hollywood producer Wendy Finerman; radio host Casey Kasem; Kent Kresa, retired chief of Northrop Grumman Corp.; and activists from surrounding neighborhoods who are concerned about traffic and other ill effects.

The adversaries have hauled in noted land-use legal firms -- Latham & Watkins for Harvard-Westlake and O'Melveny & Myers for the opposition.

It is a battle of the titans, or, as one observer put it, "Goliath vs. Goliath."

Here, there are no Davids.

At issue is a plan, five years in the making, to enlarge the campus and bring it to 21st century technological standards.

"This campus doesn't meet the school's educational purposes," said Thomas C. Hudnut, Harvard-Westlake's headmaster.

Classrooms, he said, are cramped, and many lack air conditioning. The athletic field is smaller than regulation size. Visitors have mistaken the music rehearsal room for a storage closet (with a ceiling so low that a student musician once punctured an acoustic tile with a violin bow). Performing arts students compete for space with athletes in a multipurpose building.

Hudnut said the school has raised about $70 million for the overhaul, which he estimated would cost $90 million.

On Thursday, the school plans to transport supporters to a city Planning Commission meeting in downtown Los Angeles.

Harvard-Westlake's quest for a conditional-use permit that would allow it to proceed with construction has angered some well-heeled neighbors. Their chief complaints include the school's plan to build a 950-seat auditorium that they note would rival the Mark Taper Forum in size, to move and expand its parking area onto land now zoned for residential use and to raze a house designed by the late Paul Revere Williams, the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects.

Some opponents contend that the school has failed to honor an earlier agreement with the Holmby Hills Homeowners Assn. In 1984, to gain neighborhood support to build a combined gym and auditorium, the school agreed to hold enrollment to less than 700. The campus now has 731 students, and the proposal calls for a cap of 750.

"This has bred distrust," said Marcia Selz, president of the Holmby Hills Homeowners Assn., which she helped revive after several years of inactivity to fight the current plan. Selz, who lives near the school, added that opponents fear a slippery slope of growth in enrollment, that would raise traffic, noise and other problems.

"There are a lot of issues that are contentious here," said Kresa, who lives across the street from the school and is part of a negotiating panel seeking to reduce the project's scale. "I would hope the commission would allow us to do some more work."

Hudnut said that the school has no plans to lift enrollment and that the 750 cap would simply give the school the flexibility it needs to deal with the fluctuations of admissions. He added that the school has modified the project many times in an effort to satisfy neighbors' concerns.

He also countered that the new traffic plan would benefit the neighborhood by making space on campus for the line of cars dropping off and picking up students. (More than half of the students are bused in, the school said.) The plan also calls for adding 75 parking spaces to ease the need for drivers to park on surrounding streets during school events.

In addition, the plan would involve demolishing six structures, including the library and the original 1928 administration building, and erecting two buildings for classrooms, a performing arts center and the auditorium.

Some neighbors have taken issue with the school's proposal to expand onto four acres that are zoned for residential use and to demolish the Williams house, known as the Morris Landau residence.

Hudnut and other school officials said this week that the school was negotiating to move the Landau residence to La Canada Flintridge, where many Williams houses are located. The Los Angeles Conservancy and prominent members of the African American community have urged that the house be preserved in its current location and incorporated into the plan.

The Holmby Hills campus looks quite different from the architecturally unified site that opened in the 1920s. Over the years, earthquake-damaged buildings have been razed and new structures have been built for classrooms, athletics and performing arts. Much of the campus is hilly and wooded, with stone benches and fountains where students meet to have lunch or study.

Plans call for increasing space by 85,000 square feet, to a total of 225,000. Once it is built out, the campus would consist of about 15 acres, half of it usable for buildings and athletic fields. (By contrast, a public middle school with a comparable enrollment would be required to have about 18 acres of usable space, said William Delvac, an attorney for Harvard-Westlake.)

Subdivided in the 1920s, Holmby Hills was billed by Janss Investment Co. as "the ultimate in real estate development," straddling Sunset Boulevard west of Beverly Hills. Many homes feature tennis courts, swimming pools, guesthouses and sloping lawns on lots ranging from 1.5 to 9 acres.

The campus predates the residences. In 1928, Janss granted the property for $10 to the founders of the Westlake School for Girls, a day and boarding school that had been established in 1904 across from Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park), near downtown Los Angeles. Later that year, the school moved into its new home, operating in a cluster of buildings designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

The female students often attended dances at the Harvard School for Boys, founded in 1900 as a military academy and later moved to the former Hollywood Country Club in Coldwater Canyon.

Harvard and Westlake merged in 1991.

The Westlake campus became a middle school for grades 7 through 9, and the North Hollywood campus became the upper-grade school.

Among famous alumni of Harvard-Westlake and its predecessors are Gray Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Candice Bergen, Sally Ride, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University.

Lourd, the Hollywood agent and a school neighbor who supports the proposal, said his daughter, a Harvard-Westlake seventh-grader, "has never been happier."

"Anything that will make it better" is worth the inconvenience, he said.

"The better the school is, the better the neighborhood is, the better the city is."

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