Tara to be stabilized in prep for preservation

January 24, 2013

The WeHo city council approved money this week to stabilize one of West Hollywood’s most important, and most controversial historic structures so that its historic preservation and adaptive re-use can be accomplished and the full grounds can be opened up as parkland.

Laurel Park, or Tara –once known before its defeat in the California Supreme Court as the Laurel Place senior housing development – at 1343 North Laurel Avenue will see basic maintenance to avoid building deterioration during this vacancy period until those plans can be formed and realized.

This parkland, now fenced off from public use, will be opened up under the Tara stabilization plan agreed to Monday night.

The plan will roughly double the existing parkland by opening up the fenced off portion of the grounds to the south of the building, providing residents with much-needed green space.

Authorizing $1.5 million for capital improvements, the also announced a community input process begin holding public meetings to determine the future use of the house.

The move caps a sea change in the city’s approach to the property and highlights a fundamental change in the city’s politics.

The mansion, the largest undeveloped plot of residential land in the city, was deeded to the community by Elsie Weisman, an elderly woman who had lived for decades in the house for use by the community.

Ten years ago, the powers that be in the city put forth plans to build 40 senior housing units on the site without considering other potential community uses for the property.

However, public backlash forced them to downsize the project to 28 in 2006.

By November, 2008, the law suit brought by community advocates wound up in the California Supreme Court – which decided unanimously in their favor – forcing the city to “revisit” the Environmental Impact Review that would have required evaluation of other suitable uses for the property.

The building at 1343 N. Laurel is nearly 100-years old; portions of it were built in 1917.

Meanwhile, costs associated with the project went through the roof, escalating from $6.1 million in 2006 to over $15 million at the time of the Supreme Court ruling.

Then the HUD money set aside to help finance that $15 million cost – a $4.2 million grant – went to another housing project in Los Angeles because of the delays.

Still, after “revisiting” the EIR and losing the primary source of funding, the city bulled forward, seeking to find other funding and re-applying for future HUD grants in hopes of building senior housing structure on the land.

But the politics of the matter had changed drastically.

Sal Guarriello, the council member who spoke to Ms. Weisman about her bequest, died in 2009.

He was replaced by appointment with Lindsey Horvath widely seen as a neophyte and “puppet” of John Heilman and Abbe Land.

The following year, after leaving the Planning Commission, John D'Amico criticized the political process in the city, pointing out that at least one staff member, Rent Stabilization and Housing Director Allyne Winderman, had acted overtly politically by pressuring him to approve the controversial Laurel Place project.

Then the project took a further downsized to 20 unit, although the cost for the project stayed the same.

Even when the property was fenced off entirely, neighbors used what they could of it as parkland.

In 2010, the LA Weekly ran a cover story named “West Follywood” on the city’s politics that showed a pattern of “top-down elitism” in the way decisions were made.

Mr. D’Amico announced his candidacy for office later that year, and in 2011 swept to a decisive victory over all three of the incumbents, Mr. Heilman, Ms. Land and Ms. Horvath, replacing the latter on the dais.

Saying, “elections have consequences,” Mr. D’Amico signaled a rethinking of Tara’s fate, one which Council member Jeffrey Prang, who had always been a bulwark against the senior housing scheme and Council member John Duran, who had radically changed his thinking on the subject a couple years earlier, joined with him in accomplishing later that year when the three voted to “dis-entitle” the senior housing project and install a park until other uses for the property could be determined.

The extent to which the city's politics have changed can best be demonstrated by the fact that Monday night's proposal, originally set for a public hearing, was moved to the Consent Calendar with the approval of the two council members who pushed for the 40-unit senior housing option for over a decade, Abbe Land and John Heilman.

This Monday’s action will maintain the building while such a plan can be formed and as it sits empty.

Look for updates on community meetings that will seek input from the community on possible community-based uses for the land.