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Neighborhood Spotlight: Bel-Air's Old Hollywood character gets a nip and tuck

Neighborhood Spotlight: Bel-Air's Old Hollywood character gets a nip and tuck
Bel-Air residents have included Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Famed serial monogamist and fashion plate Zsa Zsa Gabor, who recently died at 99 in her Bel-Air mansion, typified in many ways the demographic profile of residents of this most platinum of L.A.'s Platinum Triangle neighborhoods: whiter, older and richer than the rest of the city lying outside of its ornate gates.

The enduring mystique of Old Hollywood glamour still clings to the place, which saw legends such as Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock call the neighborhood home.

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The fact that Bel-Air became a popular celebrity enclave in the first place is somewhat ironic, since the original developer forbade the Hollywood hoi polloi to buy property in his exclusive new neighborhood.

Alphonzo Edward Bell, the oil tycoon and real estate magnate in question, made certain that actors were on the list of undesirables he wanted to keep out of what he envisioned as a "Community of Gentlemen's Estates." With its bridle paths, buried utility lines and lavishly landscaped grounds, Bel-Air and its default Mediterranean architectural style quickly became the address of choice for L.A. society in the 1920s.

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The idea that any neighborhood could keep out the pearly toothed matinee idols, which the booming movie industry was creating nearly as fast as they could get off the bus from Kansas, collapsed in the face of the tidal wave of new Hollywood money.

Celebrity architects including Wallace Neff and Gordon Kauffman were soon designing houses for oilmen and leading men alike, and the famous gates became something like a finish line for ambitious Tinseltown climbers.

That generation has now faded away, and the aftermath of Gabor's death highlights the resulting development pressures that are remaking Bel-Air. She sold her house before her passing, with the stipulation she could reside there for the rest of her life. Now that she is gone, her home is likely to be torn down to make way for one of the new mega-mansions that are slowly replacing many of Bel-Air's older, once-lavish estates.

Neighborhood highlights:

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Privacy, please: It's not gated in the truest sense of the word (the streets of Bel-Air are public thoroughfares) but it's still one of the city's most private and exclusive neighborhoods.

A solid investment: When tear-downs regularly go for more than $10 million, and a mega-mansion can ask $85 million, you're buying into a good market.

Neighborhood challenges:

Not first-time buyer friendly: Unless your pops is a Russian oligarch or you come from minor royalty, it's unlikely you'll be able to enter the housing market with a home in Bel-Air. There's a reason residents here skew older: It takes a while to amass this kind of money.

Expert insight:

Michael Sahakian of Coldwell Banker/Previews says the sky's the limit for real estate in Bel-Air.

"It's still a very strong market," said Sahakian, pointing to a lack of inventory and buildable land as the main contributors.

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Development opportunities will continue to entice established business people who see value in the area, said Sahakian.

"If you're buying an older home, you're likely developing it," he added. "Raw land is going for $450 to $550 per usable foot."

Market snapshot:

The 90077 ZIP Code, which includes Bel-Air and other neighborhoods, saw nine single-family home sales in November resulting in a median sale price of $1.3 million, according to CoreLogic. That's a 40.7% decrease in median price year over year.

Report card:

Roscomare Road Elementary and Community Magnet Charter Elementary reside within the boundaries of Bel-Air and scored 967 and 962, respectively, out of 1,000 in the 2013 Academic Performance Index. Nearby Warner Avenue Elementary had a score of 960.

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