School moves to improve relations with neighborhood

Benjamin Most

President Rick Commons is taking steps to increase communications and improve the school’s relationship with neighbors.

Commons plans to meet with local residents and organizations over the next few months to discuss how Harvard-Westlake can be a better member of the community. The administration also hired Stacy Marble, the former chief deputy of Los Angeles Council member Tom LaBonge, to fill the newly created position of Director of Community and Public Affairs.

Many neighbors publicly share their disapproval of the school’s proposed parking garage by displaying anti-garage signs outside their homes.

“There are the signs outside the school that say, ‘We don’t like your project,’” Commons said. “I think in some ways they’re also saying, ‘We don’t think you’re as good a neighbor as you should be.’ I’m trying to sit down with people and see how we can be a better neighbor.”

Commons announced his initiative to better the school’s relationship with the community in a letter sent to neighbors.

“My calendar is now full — about half a dozen now, but we’re hoping to get about 20 or so meetings with neighbors from now to through the summertime and to ask them how we can be a more effective part of this community,” Commons said.

Marble has taken over the production of a monthly newsletter that tells residents about arts and athletic events and any construction or improvements taking place on campus and provides contact information for them to communicate their concerns. She also plans to launch a monthly newsletter to circulate more broadly.

She has met with community members such as the president of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Studio City Residents Association to discuss Harvard-Westlake’s role in the neighborhood. She also helped set up the Harvard-Westlake booth at the CicLAvia biking event.
Vice President John Amato, the main spokesperson for the school on the parking garage project, said that the purpose of hiring the director of community and public affairs is not to deal with complaints about issues such as the parking garage but to promote friendly interaction between the school and the surrounding community.

“The position in terms of public relations is way beyond that issue,” Amato said. “It’s for the future, it’s something we sorely needed, and we’re going to do it.”

Neighbors are by no means united in sentiments against the parking garage, and their frustrations also go beyond it.

After seeing students park in front of her house every weekday morning, watching them speed in their cars and even finding a condom on her lawn that she presumes a student left behind after a night of debauchery, Amy*, a Halkirk Street resident and neighbor of the school for seven years, doesn’t know what to do.

She says that when she speaks to students, she feels that they don’t listen to her or don’t care. When she needs a space in front of her house for a visiting guest, she often cannot find one. When she places traffic cones to save a parking space, the cones that security guard Sanders Jackson gave her after one of her several phone calls to the school, the students move the cones to make space for their own cars.

“On a day-to-day basis, it is sheer hell because the students take up the whole street, and they’re really inconsiderate,” Amy said. “I can’t have a single guest over. They just jam their cars in. It’s gotten a lot worse over the past two years to the point where the quality of life around here has sort of deteriorated.”

Amy supports the parking garage that would allow students to park across the street from the upper school campus and likely prevent them from parking on residential streets such as Halkirk.

“There is a lot of pressure in our neighborhood to be anti-garage,” Amy said. “But not having it is also really not working.”
Many residents say they have heard stories of or personally witnessed students littering or drinking alcohol, and assumed these students attend Harvard-Westlake.

Sarah*, a Halkirk resident, said that, in her almost 30 years living nearby the school, she has rarely seen students drinking alcohol, but littering is fairly common.

One of the most common complaints from neighbors of the school is that students park outside their houses.

“Students usually park on Halkirk, but when residents need to use Halkirk for their own cars, they park around here,” Goodland Place resident Jamie* said. “I don’t think it’s fair that students have to walk across a very busy road with no sidewalks, and I think the parking garage will actually help with traffic flow. We don’t have sidewalks in these neighborhoods, so a lot of people end up having to dodge traffic.”

While some share Jamie’s view, many strongly oppose the garage. Anti-garage activists visited houses in the area and supplied neighbors of the school with signs displaying messages such as “Stop Harvard-Westlake’s Destruction of Coldwater Canyon!”

Goodland Avenue resident Todd* believes that the parking garage is unnecessary.

“Blacktop your existing field, take care of the existing overflow cars, and don’t bother me about your 750 cars,” Todd said.

Goodland Avenue resident Patricia Bercsi supports the parking garage, and when she sometimes asks students not to park in front of her house, she says they are always polite and respectful. She used to use the track frequently, and hearing school football games reminds her of her college days.

However, at neighborhood events, Bercsi said the parking garage is a controversial topic.

“When we go to social events, there are always the pros and cons being spat out,” Bercsi said. “But you know what? Change is good.”

In the neighborhood, some of the school’s most adamant supporters are its current students and alumni.

Kate Chilton (Andrew ’17) said her family bought a home on Dickens Street so Andrew could walk to school. She supports the parking garage and has no problem with students parking in front of her house.

“I think the neighbors have to be a little more open-minded,” Chilton said.

Ben Greene ’14 grew up on Goodland Avenue, and at first, he and his family never considered that he might attend Harvard-Westlake.

“We thought it wasn’t going to be a school for us, and we only went to look at it because it was our neighborhood school,” Ben’s mother, Judith, said.
Even before looking at the school, Ben and his family felt they had a friendly relationship with it.

“Before Benjamin was in school, they were rehearsing ‘Les Miserables,’” Judith said. “We really felt like we were being serenaded. It was great.”

Although the Greenes witnessed student drinking one night several years before Ben began attending Harvard-Westlake, they have never seen it since then.
The Greenes soon found that others in the neighborhood, however, did not share their appreciation for the school. After finding out that Ben had chosen to attend Harvard-Westlake, one neighbor crossed the street to avoid him every time the neighbor saw him, Ben said.

Neighbors also complained to the Greenes about parking issues.

“It’s funny hearing the neighbors talk,” Ben said. “They complain about the kids parking in front of their houses, and then they complain about the parking garage where the kids will park.”

Judith feels that neighbors blame Harvard-Westlake for the actions of any students in the neighborhood, regardless of whether or not they attend the school.

“I think Harvard-Westlake gets a bad rap for anything a kid does,” Judith said. “Any kid in his car smoking, making out with his girlfriend, drinking, they say it’s a Harvard-Westlake kid. It’s a nice scapegoat.”

*Names have been changed