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Woodland Hills residents unhappy about development plan for Warner Center area

Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine was in a defensive mood when he walked into the crowded Woodland Hills middle school auditorium.

Half a dozen police officers stood at the ready outside the door. Inside, a standing-room-only crowd of 300 waited.

They were there to discuss development plans for the last major vacant area in Warner Center — the San Fernando Valley’s version of high-rise Century City.

Residents were promised years ago that a high-quality combination residential and commercial project called the Village was being planned for 31 acres of an L-shaped parcel along Victory and Topanga Canyon boulevards.

Now, they were being told that a big-box warehouse store would anchor the site, not something resembling Fairfax’s the Grove or Glendale’s Americana at Brand shopping and residential plaza.

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“It’s a done deal,” Zine had earlier told a group of neighborhood council leaders when he explained that a Costco store and gas station were coming to Warner Center.

That had been met with demands from some for Zine’s recall. They complained that a bulky warehouse project would torpedo Warner Center’s goal of being a model of where people both live and work.

Now Zine was standing before the Sept. 15 meeting of the Woodland Hills-Warner Center Neighborhood Council to do some damage control. Along with homeowners, the auditorium was packed with union members invited by the project’s developer.

Residents were angry that more than half a dozen public forums about the Village had been staged yet the final version of the project plan had been switched without notice.

“It’s a done deal — I stand by that comment,” Zine told the crowd. “That meant I support them coming to this community. I’m trying to bring in jobs … tax revenue. I’m not telling Costco to go away.”

It wasn’t his idea to scrap the 360 units of residential housing that had been earmarked for the site, he said. He wasn’t the one who decided to shrink the size of the hotel, office, shops and restaurant space planned for the Village, either.

That decision was made by Westfield Shopping Centers, which will develop the 31-acre parcel and which operates shopping malls north and south of the site, he said.

“It offends me when people criticize me” for trying to improve the community, said Zine. As for his recall: “I think it’s absurd when you have a councilman trying to bring in jobs,” he said.

But Zine blanched when a rendering of the proposed 147,000-square-foot Costco store was shown to the crowd. The picture showed the store’s back wall extending about a block next to the Victory Boulevard sidewalk.

That’s not a done deal,” Zine said, promising that residents would have a chance to review design plans before construction is approved.

Angry residents offered a list of 20 questions for Zine, Westfield and Costco, including why a more suitable “urban store” design wasn’t being considered by the Issaquah, Wash., wholesaler and what the true financial gain to the city would be.

John Alderson, a development executive with Westfield, and Jackie Frank, a Costco executive, defended the planned $50-million store, which would occupy land leased from the shopping center company.

It remains unclear whether Costco intends to close an aging warehouse store it operates about 2 1/2 miles away in Canoga Park and transfer its 200 employees to the Warner Center store. Frank indicated that the new store will employ about 300 people.

In an interview later, Larry Green, senior vice president of development for Westfield, defended Costco as being “totally consistent to what we’ve done at Topanga with Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.” He said the scaled-down project proposal is also consistent with the earlier plans for the Village.

“We’d be nuts in today’s market to build 500,000 square feet of residential. We still think we have a good amount of office space,” Green said. Buildings that are adjacent to existing streets will allow for green space, pedestrian sidewalks and bikeways in the interior of the development, he said.

Westfield believes that the planned 16-pump Costco gas station’s underground tanks can be engineered to accommodate the high water table in Warner Center. The station’s placement at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Owensmouth Avenue will be “something that’s nice and appropriate,” he said. The project will allow for the removal of several vacant commercial structures in the area.

The high water table will preclude underground parking. Green said a parking structure will be built atop retail shops, and its look could be softened by covering it with an architectural facade.

Jeff Brotman, co-founder of Costco and its director of planning, did not respond to inquiries from The Times by phone and in writing as to whether his company had investigated other Warner Center locations. The former Catalina Yachts factory on Victory Boulevard is vacant, and residents say a large Litton facility on Canoga Avenue has been rumored to be on a closure list.

Also up in the air was the future of Costco’s Canoga Park store on Roscoe Boulevard.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may have had the answer when he traveled to Warner Center on Wednesday to meet with the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization.

Villaraigosa told a group of about 50 that his understanding is that Costco will keep the Roscoe Boulevard store open as a “business Costco” outlet.

“They’re going to get me riled” if they close it and simply transfer Canoga Park’s operations to Warner Center, the mayor said. “I would not be for them closing that other one down. They’d have to do something with it. This was always an addition game, not a subtraction one.”

Villaraigosa listened as residents bemoaned the loss of the original Village concept. “It was highly appealing, an absolutely fantastic proposal,” one woman said. A man complained that Costco is only willing to let locals “pick the color” of the new building and weigh in on its landscaping.

“That would irk me, too,” acknowledged the mayor.

Resident Peter Fletcher summed up homeowners’ concerns.

“This is the last great superblock left in Woodland Hills,” Fletcher told Villaraigosa. “This should be our town center — an area we could stroll through and meet our neighbors and have a true center to this town.

“We’re not against Costco. We just want them to respect our community, to see the value of our community.”

bob.pool@latimes.com


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