Studio City residents already aggrieved by construction on Coldwater Canyon Avenue for the past two years expressed frustration with the Harvard-Westlake administration for ignoring the opinions of the community at a Studio City Neighborhood Council special board meeting about the school’s proposed Parking Improvement Plan Nov. 7.
Most members of the SCNC board seemed skeptical about the plan, but slightly more people spoke in favor of the plan than against it at the meeting at the CBS Studio Center.
Vice President John Amato debuted the plan, which includes a 750-spot, three-level parking structure for students, faculty, staff, parents and visitors with a rooftop practice field and a pedestrian bridge across Coldwater to campus, last year. The project would also move the campus entrance 37 feet south and add two traffic lanes in both directions in front of the school.
During the time available for public comment, in which people were allotted one minute each to speak, 24 people who opposed the plan voiced a range of environmental concerns and worries about noise pollution, objected to subjecting Coldwater Canyon to another two years of construction and said the school consistently ignored the opinions of its neighbors and Studio City residents.
Susan Jacobs, a member of nonprofit corporation Save Coldwater Canyon!, said that when she tells fellow Studio City residents about the parking plan, she typically receives one of two responses: either “utter amazement” at the absurdity of the proposal, or resignation to the plan because of Harvard-Westlake’s money and influence.
When Jacobs told the SCNC board, “I urge you to do the right thing. Vote against the proposal. Make the public aware you’re on their side,” she drew so much applause that SCNC president John Walker asked the audience to cease clapping.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church member William Dean said the plan wasn’t intended for the community but for the “easy comforts of the fortunate few.”
“There should not be two sets of rules in this city: rules for Harvard-Westlake and rules for everyone else,” Studio City resident Sarah Boyd said.
This wasn’t the first time the school ignored the neighbors’ wishes, 27-year-old neighbor Nancy Mehagian said. When the school installed lights on Ted Slavin Field, “No one asked me,” she said.
“[The plan] sounds like an absolute nightmare,” she said. “What’s in it for the neighbors? Nothing.”
Of the speakers opposing the plan, three represented organizations and were granted 10 minutes to speak. St. Michael’s rector Dan Justin wore a sticker saying “We Support HW,” which school administrators gave to supporters attending the meeting. Justin said he wore it because he supports the school but opposes the plan.
Justin worried that the church and preschool would drop in attendance because of noise pollution resulting from construction.
The pipe organ could face damage by inhaling dust from construction, Justin said, a possibility he said wasn’t investigated.
Loyola Law School professor and Save Coldwater Canyon! Board of Directors member Jennifer Rothman represented Save Coldwater Canyon!. She detailed many environmental concerns, disagreeing with many of the conclusions the school’s Draft Environmental Impact Report reached.
Rothman also denounced the large number of city law exemptions the plan requires, such as zoning laws, height limits and cutting down protected trees. While bypassing these laws, the project would also result in light and noise pollution and garage vibrations that would affect wildlife, she said, including threatened and declining species. She disagreed with the draft EIR’s conclusion that wildlife would be undisturbed.
Additionally, Rothman said the plan ignores geological concerns about the bridge.
“The different soil on the two sides of Coldwater Canyon make the bridge a safety hazard in a seismic event,” she said. “One side is liquefaction, the other bedrock, making it likely to snap during an earthquake and block the roadway.”
Rothman also said the structure would worsen traffic and has no community benefit and denied that the school lacks the parking capacity it says it needs. She said she could share photos and videos documenting the “routinely numerous empty spots available on campus.”
Lawyer Bruce Lurie, of the law firm Lurie, Zepeda, Schmalz & Hogan, said he conducted an independent six-month investigation into the school’s legal rights to build on the west side of Coldwater and the legal requirements to which the school has been subjected in its land use since 1992.
“This is a residential neighborhood,” Lurie said. “That school operates there as a privilege. They don’t have any right to operate there in a way that interferes with the residential character of that neighborhood.”
As a campus on a conditional use site in a residential zone, Harvard-Westlake is required to limit its students, faculty and staff, Lurie said. In his investigation, Lurie found that each time the administration asked to build something new on campus, it promised no new enrollment.
However, according to a statement Amato made in January, Lurie saw that student, faculty and staff populations grew since a 1992 census. Lurie said these extra students, faculty and staff had “no legal right” to be there.
“They’re breaking the law,” Lurie said. “There’s criminal sanctions for violating those. For the administration to put parents and students in this precarious situation is unthinkable.”
A lawyer for the school later said Lurie’s allegations were not new, and that when the city investigated the school’s enrollment, it found no cap exists for students or faculty and staff at Harvard-Westlake.
A total of 31 speakers supported the plan mainly on the basis of increasing safety and traffic flow and reducing off-campus parking. The majority of the speakers were both Studio City residents and Harvard-Westlake parents, and many commute daily on Coldwater Canyon.
“The current situation is an accident waiting to happen,” 45-year resident and daily commuter James Chapman said.
Others supported the plan because of their history with Harvard-Westlake, which they described as a trustworthy neighbor and, in the case of Jerry’s Deli CEO Guy Starkman ’89, a steadfast supporter of local businesses.
“Harvard-Westlake has been an exemplary neighbor to me,” 15-year neighbor Frank Birney (Walshe ’02) said. “In the end, it’s just a matter of trust. I trusted Harvard-Westlake with the education of my son—his education, his growth, his well-being. And I trust Harvard-Westlake with the well-being of my neighborhood because of their incredibly great neighborhood spirit and feel.”
Geologist Lori Belateche (Zachary ’16), who said she lives less than half a minute from campus, has worked on environmental impact reports and read the plan’s geological reports, which she called “very complete and very thorough.”
“I think it’s a great project,” Belateche said. “I think it’s important for safety, I think it’ll make traffic move along very nicely, I wholeheartedly support it and I am a neighbor.”
James David’s children attend Buckley, but he has lived next to the Harvard-Westlake campus for more than 20 years and can see the proposed site from his house.
“It’s really a blight,” he said, calling the plan “innovative” and Harvard-Westlake a “great” neighbor.
The meeting began with a presentation by Amato and Paul Hastings LLP law firm associate Edgar Khalatian. In his presentation, Amato emphasized the school’s role in the community as a supporter of local businesses and community service. After explaining the need for the parking structure and extra athletic field, he assured that the field would be used for practice only, with the lights off by 8 p.m., and not used during the weekend. Amato said the structure would beautify the neighborhood by renovating a defunct development area used for storage by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. When Khalatian spoke about “myth versus facts,” he said every removed tree would be quadruply replaced and that most of the trees already suffer from an incurable fungus.
Khalatian said the process would take two years, with nine months of excavation and 15 months of construction, and that all staging would be on school property. Over 60 percent of the property would remain open space, he said.
The possibility of building on the east side of Coldwater, traffic increases, light pollution and increased enrollment were among the concerns Khalatian labeled as myths.
After public comment, the SCNC board asked Amato and Khalatian about issues ranging from noise reverberation to student parking during construction. Often, the board members expressed doubt before asking questions. “I have so many places of contention regarding this proposed plan,” Lana Shackelford said.
As alternate solutions, board members suggested valets for major events, carpooling, subterranean parking and using public transportation.
“I do think you need to do something,” Gail Steinberg said. “I’m not sure this magnitude is what you need to do.”
The council will make a decision Dec. 11, but its recommendation will have no effect on whether the city will approve the plan.