Sportszilla: King of the River

The community discusses controversies surrounding the River Park Project and its effects on students and Studio City residents.

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Illustration by Raisa Effress

An illustrated “Sportszilla” is pictured in a Harvard-Westlake jersey. Due to the school’s plans to turn Weddington Golf & Tennis into the new River Park, organizations like “Save Weddington” have taken to calling the school “Sportszilla.”

Ella Yadegar, Assistant Features Editor

On a summer night in 1984, Judy and Norman Millar walked along manicured grass under beaming floodlights and a warm Studio City breeze. It was their first date in Norman Millar’s hometown. Judy Millar said although they originally met in San Francisco, he had decided the first place he wanted to take her was somewhere he had spent much of his childhood: a golf course on the corner of Whitsett Avenue and Valley Spring Lane next to the Los Angeles River.

Judy Millar said visiting what is now Weddington Golf and Tennis for the first time gave her a complete picture of an institution that meant so much to her husband. 

“My husband’s first job was at the golf course washing golf balls,” Judy Millar said. “He had played on that open space land near the [Los Angeles] River when he was a kid. Introducing me to golf and tennis was kind of introducing me to his family history.”

Judy Millar said when she, her husband and their 10-year-old son moved to L.A., the golf course became an important part of their son’s childhood and a new family tradition. 

“We used to go to that golf course every single night and hit golf balls,” Judy Millar said. “The little restaurant has gone through different hands in the many years that we’ve been here, but it hasn’t made a difference. It’s always been a destination place for us.”

In 1890, the Weddington family established a farm on the land that the Weddington golf course now lies on. After Joe Kirkwood, the son of a professional golfer, finished a 51-year lease on the property in 2007, the Weddington family began to look for other parties to acquire the golf and tennis facility.  

In 2017, Harvard-Westlake purchased the 16-acre asset, a mile from the upper school campus, for over $40 million, with a plan to convert the land into a multi-sport complex. Official renderings reveal plans to build an 52-meter swimming pool, two fields, a gym and an underground parking structure. Although the cafe that neighbors like Millar frequent would remain open,  the project would reduce the number of tennis courts from 16 to eight and remove the golf course, with the exception of the putting green. Once approved for construction by the city, construction is estimated to take up to two years to complete. 

The project, however, has faced pushback from the Studio City community. Hannah Carbunaru ’24  said she passes by houses with signs on their front lawns calling to “Stop Harvard-Westlake Sportszilla” on her way to school every morning.

“I don’t really understand the whole ‘Sportszilla’ thing,” Carbunaru said. “I think people are mad that a private school is taking over all this land. All these different sides are crazy.  At the farmers market near my house, there are these people that are telling everyone about how horrible Harvard-Westlake is and about the stuff that they’re going to tear apart.”

Carbunaru said she believes a large part of the community’s opposition stems from residents’ belief that they will not have access to the new recreational buildings. In fact, facilities such as the tennis courts, fields, pool and gym will remain open to the public from 7-3 p.m. and 6 p.m. until closing, when not in school use.  

“It’s going to be open to the public still, which is good,” Carbunaru said. “I don’t think that the public understands that they also will be able to use the facilities.”

Studio city residents discuss drawbacks of River Park

Opposition groups including “Save Weddington” and “Save LA River Open Space” campaigns have emerged in response to the  River Park project.

“Save Weddington” Board Member Teri Austin, who wrote an appeal to the city to designate Weddington as a historic site, said her main problems with the school’s plan include noise, golf course demolition and the environmental impacts of River Park.  

“There’s a lot of reasons why the community is so brokenhearted at the thought that a school that’s as affluent as Harvard-Westlake, that has the 1% of the 1% attending, would want to get rid of the [golf] course and wouldn’t look for alternatives,” Austin said.

In its pledge to sustainability, the school proposed a stormwater capture system at River Park that would clean and reuse water. The system would prevent foreign objects from flowing into the Los Angeles River, eventually removing threats to ocean wildlife, according to the official River Park website.

However, Austin said she believes the school’s plan to dig into the property’s water basin is ultimately harmful to the environment. 

“The underground parking garage is dug into the watershed,” Austin said. “We need water, not poured concrete which leeches into the environment for the next 30 years. The shiny object that’s been waved in front of everyone is that the school is going to build a well. Wells work great when you get rainfall, but when you live in a drought, it’s not that big of a deal.”

The school, however, has conducted environmental studies to ensure the development is not harmful to the environment. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) posted on the city’s website, “the Project would result in significant and unavoidable impacts related to Project-level and cumulative on-site and off-site construction noise, and Project-level and cumulative off-site construction vibration (human annoyance). All other potential impacts would be less than significant or mitigated to less-than-significant levels.”

The school’s parking proposal for the site includes an underground 503-space parking garage, with 29 more spaces at surface level. While the administration promised in its design principles for River Park to support the designation of “residents only” street parking, Studio City resident Helen Giroux said the school has no control over where people are going to park.

“People aren’t going to park in a parking lot — they park on the street where it’s easier to walk,” Giroux said. “I envision people coming down Moorpark and turning on all the side streets. My street, Beeman and Teasdale all [would have] traffic and parking like crazy. That disrupts our quality of life. If they want to build a complex like that, let them find a space that doesn’t include a residential neighborhood. The school has enough money to afford transportation. They’re going to have to shuttle kids anyway to that property — they can shuttle them a little farther.”

One aspect of the project is to build a walking path around the site that the public can utilize as a park space. Austin said the school is using this space for the public only because the city requires a mandatory setback.

“That is not attractive,” Austin said. “And then you realize that the park is a 30-foot setback from the curb that they’re not allowed to build on anyway. I say the park will have all the ambiance of walking behind a Costco.”

Austin said if she were an alumnus or student being asked to donate money for the River Park project, she would like the school to be more transparent with their letters to the community regarding updates on the development. 

“When [the school] put out a letter saying that the [DEIR] is in— [they say] the city loves it, there are no problems with the operational categories— they leave out that the operational categories [refer to] after it’s built,” Austin said. “The report says that there’s significant environmental damage from almost three years of construction, excavation, pollution from the trucks and the traffic of the building. But they didn’t put that in the letter that was sent out by Rick Commons. Not one permit has been issued, there hasn’t been a public hearing yet and there are going to be several lawsuits. So if I was donating to the school, I’d say ‘How much money are you going to spend on lawyers and lawsuits fighting this and trying to shove this down the throats of the community?’”

Giroux also said she sees the school’s plan as a harm to the neighborhood instead of an improvement.

“It boggles my mind that they could even say that there’s any benefit to the community from what they’re doing,” Giroux said. “All they’re proposing is this little walkway that goes around it. That has no benefit to the community. They’re limiting the number of tennis courts. We need to get people in the community to utilize space like that for productive activities, especially for kids. I see kids hitting golf balls and playing tennis, which is really crucial to the environment. A tree isn’t just the environment, it’s also the people who are in it.”

School responds to River Park opponents

Head of Communications Ari Engelberg ’89 said many opponents to the River Park project have spread false information to encourage resistance.

“The River Park does not have twelve-foot walls around the perimeter with razor wire at the top,” Engelberg said. “The River Park will not be used for Olympic events in 2028. And the River Park will not be used for commercial film production. Harvard-Westlake has made every effort to be fully transparent with the community since the moment the school purchased the property in 2017. We have held numerous public meetings to answer questions and address concerns, and we have made ourselves available for Zoom and in-person meetings with any member of the community who wishes to speak about the River Park.”

Engelberg said the school has made compromises to ease concerns about the development.

“HW has listened to community feedback about the project, making dozens of changes — big and small — to the project plan to address the reasonable concerns of community members,” Engelberg said. “Notably, the original plans called for three more lanes on the track, a third bay to the gymnasium and an additional 25 meters of pool area, all of which the school has agreed to eliminate.”

A map outlines the site plan for River Park, which includes two athletic fields, a jogging track, tennis courts and other natural spaces. (Printed with permission from the school)

Even with certain alterations to the original plan for the property, Commons said one longstanding goal of  River Park is to relieve pressure on student-athletes by providing an alternate place for earlier practices and matches.

“Our students are incredibly busy, and they don’t get enough sleep and they don’t get enough time with their families,” Commons said. “The initial motivation was, ‘Let’s put balance into our students’ lives so that we don’t have to have practices going deep into the evening or starting before dawn.’”

Commons said having extra field space will allow the school to grow its athletic program.

“We can potentially offer some additional opportunities, whether it’s girls lacrosse, or additional boys soccer teams because there are kids who would like to play boys soccer that we don’t have field space for at this point,” Commons said.

Diver Charlotte Newman ’24 said the proposed athletic facilities would serve as a positive change for the student population.

“As an athlete, I think River Park is a really good idea because it takes the stress off of certain athletes to stay at school for a really long period of time,” Newman said. “And it especially would help them manage the exceptional Harvard-Westlake level of stress.”

Though Newman thinks River Park would be beneficial to the school’s community, she does not believe that the project will actually be developed any time soon.

“Knowing how the neighborhood has reacted to Harvard-Westlake developments in the past, I just don’t think River Park is going to actually happen,” Newman said. “The fact that we have had multiple proposed projects for parking structures that have been taken down by the neighborhood because of the noise shows that. Even though River Park would be a great place for the school, I just don’t see the neighborhood council letting it happen, at least any time in the near future.”

Tennis player Mia Morgan ’25 said although she feels indifferent toward River Park because she will graduate before the development is scheduled to finish, she is excited about the potential the project holds for future students. 

“I’m not going to be able to even use River Park, so it’s not really anything significant to me,” Morgan said. “It’s more that I’m excited for future generations of Harvard-Westlake.  I think it’s going to be great for the other sports because they’re going to be able to not stay at school, solely because they’re not going to have to wait for one sport to finish practice.”

Community members contrast River Park to new local mall The Shops at Sportsmen’s Lodge

Another Studio City project, The Shops at Sportsmen’s Lodge, opened after a $100 million dollar development in December 2021. The shopping complex replaced the historic hotel that once stood there.

Carbunaru said her neighbors had talked about tearing Sportsmen’s Lodge down for many years.

“I think that it’s good that they tore it down because now they are giving that area a new life,” Carbunaru said. “People are going to be utilizing that area more, rather than it being a hotel that no one has heard of or been to. I think that they could make a new hotel there and charge a lot of money which would revive the neighborhood.”

With River Park, we saw an opportunity to be community citizens as an institution in a much bigger way than we’ve ever been before”

— President Rick Commons

When Sportsmen’s Lodge was developed, some residents opposed the traffic that construction would bring. Giroux said she supports the new shops because they bring retail to the neighborhood, as opposed to the River Park project constructing a building on top of what was once a golf course.

“There was traffic when Sportsmen’s Lodge was being developed,” Giroux said. “But that is not open space, so I wouldn’t even equate it to [the River Park]. There was disruption and the parking is terrible, so people protested the development of it. But in my view, it’s a completely different issue. If anything, having a restaurant within walking distance is justified. Sportsman’s Lodge was a historical institution because it’s been in Studio City for so many years, but it wasn’t open green space.”

Aware of the potential to build a project that benefitted Studio City, Commons said the administration quickly realized River Park presented an opportunity to for the school to collaborate with the broader Studio City community. 

“This campus and the way we use this campus is not currently oriented towards sharing it with the community,” Commons said. “The same is true with the Middle School. With River Park, we saw an opportunity to be community citizens as an institution in a much bigger way than we’ve ever been before. That is a huge aspect now of the River Park project — to think about how we can share it and how we can make that resource available to the immediate community and to organizations like Angel City Sports, so that we can have adaptive athletes making use of those facilities and having opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Despite the school’s efforts to make River Park a community-based endeavor, Judy Millar said she still has concerns about the destruction of a place so meaningful to her family. 

“We’ve lived here for 28 years,” Judy Millar said. “I’m really concerned that the quality of life of our little neighborhood is going to drastically change. Things change, but it’s just pretty sad on many levels.”