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Tensions rising on Ventura Blvd.

Times Staff Writer

Ventura Boulevard has long been a place where you went for sushi, doctor’s appointments and meetings with your lawyer. Now it could become a place where you live.

The storied thoroughfare of shopping centers and office towers that snakes along the San Fernando Valley’s southern flank will get its first large-scale apartments and condominiums this spring, perhaps sparking a trend that could significantly transform the 18-mile commercial corridor.

Starting in Universal City and winding through Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills, the boulevard is home to restaurants, boutiques, carwashes and supermarkets. Often used by drivers as an alternative to the 101 Freeway, the boulevard’s traffic jams are notorious.

Allowing residential units on Ventura Boulevard is part of Los Angeles City Hall’s larger campaign to encourage so-called smart growth along transportation corridors that will get people out of their cars and onto buses and subways. In theory, these new residents also would walk to stores, movie theaters and restaurants, cutting down on time spent behind the wheel.

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Residents of neighborhoods that abut the busy boulevard have long complained that high-rise commercial and office buildings cast shadows on yards half a block away and that drivers seeking to bypass the bustling boulevard cut through their once-peaceful streets. Now they worry that new multifamily housing will make congestion and parking problems even worse.

Development along Ventura Boulevard has been controversial, even without housing. When high-rises began appearing more than 25 years ago, homeowners complained that their property values would fall as traffic and parking congestion grew.

Although a smattering of retirement homes and at least one residential complex already exist on the boulevard, developers and city officials are adding significantly more apartments and condos to the mix, which has some people worried.

On one side are those who say that the boulevard was never designed to accommodate residences and that the units will aggravate conditions along the already jammed east-west artery.

Developers and city officials say they are promoting pedestrian-friendly smart growth, which seeks to place dense development in some areas, mainly along transportation corridors, in hopes of reining in sprawl elsewhere.

Six mixed-use projects providing 775 residential units have been approved for the boulevard, according to city officials.

But some residents in Encino complain that the city is allowing developers to build taller and denser buildings than is permitted under the community’s specific plan and that residential builders are exempt from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic-impact fees even as they bring more cars to the already overloaded boulevard.

They also point out that residential space is not counted when total square footage on the corridor is tallied up -- mainly because no one envisioned that living quarters would be built on the commercial strip -- which means development could exceed the plan’s limits.

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Earlier this month, leaders of neighborhood councils and homeowners groups along the boulevard met to discuss the issue and came up with three recommendations for the city: Count the square footage of residential units in the overall tally; charge developers traffic-impact fees on residential units; and increase those fees to offset the cost of improvements needed on Ventura Boulevard and its side streets.

“Everything is totally against the constituents,” said Lisa Sarkin, a member of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, “and everything is for the developer.”

Activists believe the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better because of a recently enacted state law that allows developers to build new apartment buildings 35% larger than local zoning ordinances permit if they include some below-market, affordable units in their buildings. The city’s interpretation of that law has caused distress in neighborhoods all over the city.

Rob Glushon, president of the Encino Neighborhood Council, complains that developers are being granted variances and exemptions to the specific plan, allowing the delicate balance between larger mixed-use developments on the boulevard and smaller single-family homes off the boulevard to be thrown out of whack.

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“What good is a specific plan if you approve all these variances and exceptions?” Glushon asked. “I’m not against mixed use, I just think developers should have to play by the rules.”

Tom Glick, a city planner in the Valley, said homeowners and developers have the right to seek building code changes and variances on their properties, and each request is considered individually.

Mixed-use developments -- a combination of housing and commercial-retail space within one project -- are in the works in several communities along the boulevard, including Tarzana and Sherman Oaks. But no neighborhood is more affected than Encino, where three such developments are under construction within a half-mile of Ventura Boulevard and Hayvenhurst Avenue.

They include the four-story, 137-unit Avalon Bay apartment complex, the 125-unit Gold Mountain project and the 51-unit Woodrise. The intersection is about a mile from the often gridlocked interchange of the 101 and 405 freeways.

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The 2004 planning report for Avalon Bay shows that the city granted a higher density on one portion of the project than otherwise allowed in exchange for creating a buffer zone between it and nearby homes. The report also stated that the project would reduce congestion by encouraging pedestrian activity.

Bryan Gordon, chief operating officer of Pacific Equity Properties, a Santa Monica firm building a mixed-use project on the boulevard in Tarzana, said his company sought entitlements for Village Walk -- which includes town houses, condominiums and a Whole Foods store -- not to add density but to increase ceiling height in the town houses and to make boulevard-facing buildings more visually pleasing.

“We try to serve the community by building good projects and by not cramming as much as we can into a buildable area,” Gordon said.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents Encino, Sherman Oaks and parts of the Westside, supports mixed-use projects “that will encourage pedestrian and transit-friendly neighborhoods where people can rely less on cars,” said Lisa Hansen, his chief of staff.

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“To preserve the character of single-family neighborhoods, mixed-use projects should be considered for major boulevards and transit corridors,” Hansen said.

“For example, Councilmember Weiss’ vision for Century City adds residential projects and transit improvements, and Ventura Boulevard also can incorporate residential and mixed-use projects in a thoughtful way.”

Weiss’ support for mixed-use projects in Century City helped spark an unsuccessful recall attempt last year by a small group of Westside homeowners.

But “thoughtful” is not the description Encino residents would apply to the way development is unfolding in their community, and even mixed-use supporters are having a hard time accepting what’s going on.

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“I am a fan of mixed use because of what I’ve seen in other cities around the world,” said Leonard Shaffer, president of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council.

“Whether it will work in Los Angeles is another question, because of our car culture. But when I look at some of the things going on in Encino, I cringe.”

Gerald A. Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, echoes Shaffer’s concerns:

“There’s no proof that smart growth works,” Silver said. “People are going to get in their cars and drive.”

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amanda.covarrubias@ latimes.com


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