Posted: Friday, September 8, 2017 – 4:17 PM
By Victoria Talbot
The “Bird Streets” have become a developer’s paradise. Realtors look for adjacent lots where developers can cut away the land to make massive mega-mansions on streets sometimes only 14 feet wide.
Location is everything, and the location is perched high on the hills above the vibrant Sunset Strip between Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles. The views are spectacular, and sometimes, one can even find vestiges of a ridgeline or a hillside that has not been dug out.
Once, the hills were the haven of wildlife, where mid-century modern homes sprung up on spindly matchsticks with sliding glass doors that opened precariously over the hills below and into the underbrush.
One ridge over from Trousdale’s Hillcrest Road, the Bird Streets, a reference to the proliferation of avian street names, actually begin on Doheny Drive, and include Sierra Mar, Thrasher, Sunset Plaza, Rising Glen, Franklin Way, Queens Road and Hollywood Boulevard, and all the myriad of tiny streets that wind through the hillsides. One sleek real estate ad features two adjacent “bird street” homes, including a five-bedroom residence and a three-bedroom residence on two separate but contiguous streets. “Build a home on the Bird Streets with a view,” it reads. Another advertises three adjacent “lots”, though they all have homes on them, sold separately or together, where the buyer can build a dream home.
These million-dollar tear downs, are in one of the West Side’s most desirable neighborhoods. Like Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, however, the neighborhood was under full-fledged assault from all sides before they found each other and learned of their common problem.
Savvy realtors and developers whose profits became limited with stricter codes quickly moved the playing field to take advantage of the vulnerable hills above Sunset. Many homes and lots have been snatched up by a few developers, and many of those homes sit empty and abandoned while the real estate market grows ever-hotter, awaiting the sale of one completed project to finance another.
Far to the east, somewhere in LA City Planning, planners who never leave their desks base their recommendations to develop on what they receive from facilitators.
The result is an alarming army of developers hauling away ridgelines, the natural contours of the hillsides and wildlife corridors in search of that One Big Deal to make them famous.
Meanwhile, residents who moved in decades ago to enjoy the peaceful life of living in the hills find their homes threatened by poor building practices that result in leaking infinity pools, unstable hillsides and dangerous road conditions.
Armies of construction vehicles block streets and limit access to residents and emergency vehicles. Mitigations such as flag men and reduced hauling go unenforced, and construction moves forward undaunted.
Initially, resident Ellen Evans typically ignored the notices regarding haul routes she received from LA City Hall. But in 2014, notice of a heavy haul route for 6,500 cubic yards of soil on her tiny street alarmed her.
Not only was the proposal of 650 trucks driving down her steep little street into the Cordell/Doheny intersection unimaginable, it was against common sense. How, she wondered, could City planners even consider such a haul route following then-recent highly-publicized deaths of two LAPD officers in two separate incidents on Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills involving heavy haul vehicles under almost identical circumstances?
Hillside streets, because of the contour of the land, are often silos, preventing casual contact with neighbors who are close by as the crow flies, but around a ridge or isolated from each other by a steep inclines or land features.
And city notices are only sent out to neighbors within 300 yards of a construction site, despite the impact development or haul routes might have on neighbors positioned below or downhill.
Thus, for some time, Evans was unaware that Stella Jeong was having the same awakening in her section of the hills.
Jeong had a tradition of a sort of block party-soiree with the neighborhood where the two met and began a discussion that would change their lives, and maybe even save the vestiges of the neighborhood that retained the natural elements and flow of the land features and the peaceful enjoyment long associated with life in the hills above Los Angeles.
Their first effort together was at 9366 Flicker Way. “It was an insane thing being built, and they didn’t follow hauling rules,” said Evans.
They knew nothing of the politics of appeal in land use issues, or of city politics, so the two set out to learn the process.
“We had just been re-districted. [Former LA City Councilman Tom] LeBonge was out, term limits. [Fourth District City Councilman David] Ryu was elected.” They started making noise, inviting the field representatives to their meetings and drawing attention to their plight.
Jeong used her soiree as a venue to discuss construction issues, and it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of concerned neighbors. Stella Zarakhovsky, Madeline McFadden, Stella Gray joined the group.
McFadden, who lives on a tiny street called Marcheeta, is in her seventh year of continual development on nine projects, with at least two more years to go. “The quality of life in this neighborhood has been destroyed and the character of our once quaint neighborhood, sold off the highest bidder,” she said.
At a luncheon meeting on a different issue, Jeong met Marcia Hobbs, boardmember for the Bel-Air Association and had some questions for Hobbs about land-use because of her efforts on behalf of Bel-Air.
“You can’t allow this,” Hobbs told her. “You have to respond.”
Hobbs and fellow BAA boardmember Maureen Levinson agreed to attend a meeting at Jeong’s house, where they encouraged residents to get involved.
Soon after, the group formed the Doheny Sunset Plaza Neighborhood Association (DSPNA), allowing them to get a seat on the Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council (BABCNC), which represents communities from Sepulveda to Laurel Canyon north of Sunset and south of Mulholland Drive in an advisory capacity before the City Council and land use agencies.
A drive through the hillsides reveals what city planners, ensconced in their downtown offices, either don’t see or will not acknowledge – that the so-called Bird Streets are saturated with construction.
According to a map prepared for the newly-formed DSPNA, there area, 64 approved haul routes are expected to move 432,023 cubic yards of soil from the area for single-family homes, the smallest being 1,900 cubic yards on Rising Glen Road and the largest, 16,778 cubic yards on tiny Oriole Way. More are in progress, riddling the hillsides with oversized construction sites. On Blue Jay Way alone there are currently 11 developments totaling 45,128 cubic yards of exported soil. Cordell is facing over 66,000 cubic yards; Oriole 37,076; and Nightingale, 35,354 cubic yards.
McClean Design openly advertises “This one took unbuildable to a whole new level. A triangular postage stamp abutting a mountain with a killer view, our greatest challenge was to put the 8,000-square foot home our clients wanted onto the site… “
Crest Real Estate, working with McClean as their facilitators, has coined the hashtags “#kingofthehills and #werunLA.”
With so many hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of soil being exported from the hillside, the landscape resembles the crumbling dike plugged with nine fingers. One might ask where the last finger can come to rest to save the whole thing from crumbling.
One resident whose home sits below one of the mega-mansions built on an overhanging pad including a suspended infinity pool said she heard a crack one day that echoed throughout the canyon. It was the pool, which has been leaking water down the hillside onto her property since then. Two adjacent neighbors have applications to build more infinity pools over her head.
In a video taken this past Valentine’s Day, two construction workers can be seen walking behind a ten-foot concrete “retaining wall,” a feature mandated by LA City to hold back the mountain. One of the workers gets a rock in the head, and the two start to jump down from the wall, just in time to escape a landslide that pushes the wall into the street and nearly takes their lives. Savvy neighbors had parked their cars in front of their residences for weeks to protect their homes from the eminent dangers.
Numerous McClean projects, facilitated by Crest, have been pushed through the process, haul routes and CEQA approved.
Local architect Stephanie Savage, who “is a whiz in reading plans and catching all the things the City should have,” according to McFadden, has found irregularities in the environmental assessments, haul routes, soils report and applications. For a project that requires 9,200 cubic yards of hauling, an LA City building employee told McFadden it was a “by right” project. Ryu’s office did not return an email or phone call for this article. Next week, Part 5, Crest Realty Local architect Stephanie Savage, who “is a whiz in reading plans and catching all the things the City should have,” according to McFadden, has found irregularities in the environmental assessments, haul routes, soils report and applications. For a project that requires 9,200 cubic yards of hauling, an LA City building employee told McFadden it was a “by right” project.
Ryu’s office did not return an email or phone call for this article. Next week, Part 5, Crest Realty