After long battle with West Hollywood, preservationists celebrate opening of Laurel Avenue Park
After an eight-year fight to save a leafy, historic estate that officials wanted to turn into a senior housing complex, West Hollywood preservationists finally have something to celebrate.
Gathering beneath a lush canopy of shade trees Saturday, city officials and activists celebrated the opening of Laurel Avenue Park — the site of a 1915 Colonial-style estate that locals call Tara, after the plantation from “Gone With the Wind.” For now at least, it appears Tara will remain undeveloped and open to the public.
Longtime West Hollywood resident Elsie Weisman donated the stately white home and its wooded grounds to the city before she died at age 101, thinking it would be preserved as a park and community center.
But city officials had other plans. They wanted to build a multi-story affordable housing complex around the home.
Allegra Allison, a tenant of Weisman’s for 27 years, spearheaded the battle to save the property from development.
“It’s a rare example of a time gone by,” she said. “We need preservation, and we need park spaces like this.”
The city lost a legal fight that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, while a federal grant the city had obtained to build dozens of apartments for low-income seniors expired. Last year, two councilmen proposed opening the property as a public park.
Visitors on Saturday got their first chance to roam the park, as a string duo played on the front porch. The grounds, which sit on a residential block crammed with apartment buildings, have been spruced up with new landscaping, pathways, picnic tables, a fence and a sign.
Jack Merrill, an actor who has fought to preserve the estate since Allison recruited him with a hand-painted sign eight years ago, said it is “incredible” that the estate is finally open to the public.
“This is the last house like this in West Hollywood,” he said. “Developers got their hands on every last one but this.”
The property’s designation as a public park is not permanent, however. The plan to convert the site to housing is still on the table, and council members were careful to call it an “interim park.”
Hoping to build on their victory, preservationists are campaigning hard for the March municipal election, in which they hope to unseat three incumbents who supported developing the property and elect candidates who support declaring it a permanent park.
“The basic lesson is you can fight city hall,” said Steve Martin, a former councilman who is running again on a pledge to preserve the Tara estate. “This could be West Hollywood’s crown jewel.”
Martin and others hope that the more accustomed locals become to visiting the new park — having picnics, resting on the benches and walking their dogs — the more they’ll be inclined to keep it as it is.
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