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Harvard-Westlake School's plan for parking structure upsets neighbors

Harvard-Westlake School's plan for parking structure upsets neighbors
Signs opposing Harvard-Westlake School's proposed 750-space parking structure are posted along Coldwater Canyon Avenue in Studio City. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Sarah Boyd steered her SUV along the winding roads of Studio City, stopping at a house fronting busy Coldwater Canyon Avenue.

"Oh, this is a good spot!" Boyd said, pulling a lawn sign out of her trunk and planting it in the frontyard of a supporter, the bright red letters screaming out in anger.

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For years, those who live in this leafy corner of Studio City and administrators at the prestigious, private school nearby have coexisted in relative harmony, students and teachers pulling onto the grounds of Harvard-Westlake School and residents into the trim, green neighborhoods surrounding it.

But now, the hills and lawns carry the signs of discontent as residents protest the school's plans to carve up a hillside dotted with oak and walnut trees, clearing space for a multistory, 750-space parking garage with a rooftop athletic field with artificial turf. A 163-foot pedestrian bridge would reach across Coldwater Canyon Avenue, linking the campus and the garage.

"This is not an urban place; this is a suburban place," said Jeffrey Jacobs, who moved to Studio City in 1972. "How many other canyons have parking lots?"

But how many canyons are home to Harvard-Westlake, a high-achieving school that has a long and impressive list of graduates, including Mayor Eric Garcetti?

Furious neighbors, many whom are members of a group calling itself Save Coldwater Canyon, say the plan will urbanize valuable open space and bog down traffic on the narrow canyon roads, and they worry the $33,500-a-year private school will wield its clout to get the privately financed project approved.

"The school has deep pockets, and it's very well-connected," said Boyd, who leads Save Coldwater Canyon.

Harvard-Westlake officials say the school, with its rigorous athletic and arts programs that can keep students and staffers on campus well into the night, has long had a parking deficit on its 19-acre upper campus.

That campus, which is for the 10th through 12th grades, has 578 parking spots for about 870 students, about 150 faculty members and about 50 other staffers. The new parking structure would bring the total to 1,085 spots, according to a draft environmental impact report for the project.

The school's size is a big change from its modest beginnings, said Harvard-Westlake Vice President John Amato. The Harvard School for boys moved into the defunct Hollywood Country Club on the site of the upper school campus in 1937 and merged with what then was the Westlake School for Girls in 1991.

"The school has grown up in this neighborhood," Amato said. "We live here, and we want to be good neighbors."

These days, more students drive themselves — some with long commutes — Amato said. Harvard-Westlake's students once came mostly from the San Fernando Valley; now they arrive from all over the city, he said.

On a recent Friday morning, faculty vehicles lined one of the school's long, sloping driveways, and students were parked in tandem in one of the school's lots.

Some students must park along busy Coldwater Canyon Avenue, where they are at risk of being hit by passing cars, Amato said. And students and visitors parking on neighborhood streets, especially on days when the schools' football team is playing, is a sore spot with residents, he said.

The parking structure would be built on land the city has designated as "desirable open space" and would require the removal of 12 oak and 117 walnut trees, most of which are diseased, according to city documents. The school would be required by the city to plant hundreds of trees to replace them.

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"That's a horrible argument to nuke something because it's got diseased trees," said Paul Edelman of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "That's still open land that can support animals."

The Rev. Dan Justin, rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church next to the school, said the church has huge glass windows that look out on the hillside.

"It's designed to bring nature in, and the views of the church will now be the parking garage," he said.

Justin said the church has otherwise had a good relationship with the school and even offers 40 parking spots for students in the church lot. But now it displays in a window facing Coldwater Canyon Avenue a huge sign against the project.

"For me personally, it's about the idea of being a good steward of creation and not wiping out the canyon," Justin said.

Harvard-Westlake officials say the parking structure site, which the school has owned for decades, is far from unspoiled. Amato said that the city's Department of Water and Power stores equipment there, and that houses were once on the property.

The project will eventually go before the Los Angeles City Council for a vote. The city's planning department is reviewing public comments on the draft environmental impact report released last year.

"This is a challenging issue for the community," Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents the area, said in an email. "My office has heard from hundreds of people on both sides of the proposal."

Krekorian said the city should "insist on a student enrollment cap to safeguard the surrounding neighborhood." Some residents said they worry that the added parking means that the school will increase its enrollment and keep growing — which the school denies.

Boyd, meanwhile, continues planting the lawn signs.

As she stopped one recent afternoon to put a sign in a hillside yard, she caught her breath. There was a deer standing on the driveway.

She picked out a sign with a message she knew the homeowners would appreciate: "Say 'No!' to destruction of trees and wildlife!"

Twitter: @haileybranson

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