Los Angeles Times
July 23, 2000, Sunday, Valley Edition


BYLINE: SHIRLEY SVORNY, Shirley Svorny is professor of economics at Cal State Northridge 

Now that the City Council has voted to designate Chase Knolls Garden Apartments a historic cultural monument, residents of the San Fernando Valley should consider the consequences.

Legacy Partners Inc. purchased the 260-unit Sherman Oaks property in January and wants to tear it down and build luxury apartments. By declaring the 1940s-era complex a historic cultural monument, residents, neighbors and Councilman Mike Feuer hope to buy time (under Los Angeles law, one year) and eventually prevent the new project from being built.

Although it may be in the interests of these individuals to forestall development, it is not in the interest of the Valley community. In fact, the result will be deterioration in the Valley housing stock over time as developers are discouraged from taking on projects. Use of the city's historical cultural monument statute to protect Chase Knolls unfairly shifts the burden of that protection onto the developer. If residents, neighbors and others share Feuer's view that the complex is worth preserving, then it is their right to raise private funds to buy the complex and maintain it. But as long as it costs nothing for preservationists to use the political process to forestall development, it is too easy to revel--as the Los Angeles Conservancy's Ken Bernstein did on this page--in the pedestrian paths, the complex's subtle architectural variations, its birds and squirrels. None of the individuals who advocate preserving Chase Knolls, including Bernstein, is bearing the cost.

When I expressed this concern to Jane Blumenfeld, Feuer's chief of staff, she pointed out that the development company knew the risk going in. In fact, she said she could not remember a development project in the last 20 years that went forward without government intervention.

The consequences of this seem enormous: Only developers willing to become embroiled in community politics, willing to be vilified by tenants and neighbors, willing to deal with extortionist demands made by residents through the political system, will consider Valley projects.

Blumenfeld said that many developers choose to build elsewhere because the Valley political environment is so inhospitable (my term, not hers). If the Valley discourages developers from building new, attractive homes and apartments here, families that can afford new homes will leave.

Some argue that Chase Knolls should be spared to preserve affordable housing. This is an inaccurate characterization of the consequences of redevelopment. As people move to a new development, they leave vacant their old apartments, houses and condos. As these units are rented or sold in turn, others become vacant, resulting in vacancies in affordable housing elsewhere. At Chase Knolls, more units would be created than destroyed; the number available to renters would increase.

What about the displacement of residents? This is troubling, but it is not accurate to characterize Chase Knolls residents as without the means, ability or family assistance to find alternative housing. Renting is inherently risky with respect to permanence. Chase Knolls residents knowingly took this risk. On the other side of the debate, 360 to 400 households would live in the proposed new units. There is no reason to favor one group over the other.

What of Chase Knolls' historic value?

In a June 18 editorial, The Times wrote, "Chase Knolls, with its courtyards, rolling lawns and ample trees . . . stands out from the cookie-cutter clutter that passes for development in most of the San Fernando Valley." (How offensive.) A Times reader wrote of the "beauty and spaciousness afforded to the lucky people who live there." Bernstein pointed to its "remarkable site planning, influenced by the Garden City movement in urban planning."

In fact, Chase Knolls is an example of the failure of urban planners to accommodate the needs of urban residents. Most Valley renters choose indoor space over rolling lawns. Popular complexes are built to the corners of their lots.

It is no wonder that the City Council unanimously supported Feuer's request to grant Chase Knolls historic monument status. Council members want support from their colleagues when similar situations come up in their districts. By setting themselves up to forestall development, they gain leverage to dictate conditions of development. Current residents and neighbors are grateful because the process effectively gives them some "ownership" of the land.

There is an economic downside to this political intervention. Developers will be deterred from taking on Valley projects, and both the quality and quantity of the Valley's housing stock will decline over time.