Jul 30, 2014

Laurel Park in West Hollywood Opens

After a long legal battle between the city and residents of West Hollywood, the front portion of a historic home known as "Tara" has opened as a passive park for residents.

A new pocket park officially opened on Saturday on a site embroiled in controversy for the last eight years.

Laurel Park opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Saturday morning at 1345 North Laurel Avenue (halfway between Fountain and Sunset), a site once slated for 28 affordable housing units. Those units may still be built, if the city can raise the money. But in the meantime, the front portion of the property is now a park for people and dogs alike complete with benches, picnic tables and lots of huge old trees.

“It’s thrilling to open this magnificent resource to the public,” Councilman  said. “What you’re seeing right now, these old growth trees and vegetation around this beautiful old house, is not much different from what it looked like in 1914. This may be the only site in West Hollywood which can boast that.” 

During opening ceremonies, Mayor said, “There has been a bit of controversy about this site, but one thing that was never in dispute was the importance of the park space here.”

“This is a dream come true,” Allegra Allison said, who lived for 27 years in the house located on the site. “I only hope we can make this a permanent park and preserve Elsie Weisman’s vision for the property.”

Property owner Elsie Weisman donated the 90-year-old house known as Tara and the surrounding property to the city of West Hollywood in 1997 with the stipulation that the city preserve the property and do no further development on the site. However, Weisman only made those wishes known verbally; she did not put them down in writing as part of deed transfer.

The city designated the house a cultural landmark, a designation which prevents it from being demolished. But the city did not extend that designation to the surrounding acre of property. So, in 2003, the city began eyeing the property as a site for affordable housing for low-income seniors and received a $4.2 million grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city planned to convert the house and chauffer’s cottage into seven apartments and build two additional buildings with 21 more apartments at the rear of the property. Knowing this violated Weisman’s wishes, Allison spearheaded the Save Tara campaign, a campaign that ultimately filed two lawsuits against the city over the property.

One of those lawsuits made it all the way to the California Supreme Court which ruled the city violated state law by not getting adequate public input before proceeding with the affordable housing plans (the city had already applied for the HUD grant before the first public hearing regarding the property was held; thus the court ruled the public process was merely a justification for a pre-determined decision).

“The city had to pay $818,000 for our attorney fees,” Allison said. “Plus they had to pay their own attorney and staff to fight the lawsuit. The money spent fighting it could have used to build affordable housing somewhere else in town.”

Even though they lost the lawsuit, the city still plans to eventually build affordable housing on the site. The HUD grant expired while the city was busy fighting the lawsuit, so now they must find another way to finance the affordable housing, one which has not yet materialized.

So, for now, the city has a new park. Prang, like many others, hopes the park will become a permanent park. “I’m all for affordable housing, just not here,” Prang said. “Mrs. Weisman is a saint for giving us this property. I just wish she had given us more specific direction when she deeded it to us.”

During opening comments, Councilman acknowledged Allison’s fight to preserve the property, saying, “Allegra has been the embodiment of Save Tara,” a comment which brought thunderous applause and cheers from the audience.

A year ago when it became obvious the city would not be able to raise the funds for the affordable housing anytime soon, Duran and Prang pushed to open the front portion of the property as a park. The main house, however, will remain closed to the public.

“Why should the property sit fenced up when people could be enjoying it?” Duran said, who initially supported putting affordable housing on the site but has since changed his mind. “It just made sense that we should open the park. I think it will be heavily used by residents in the area.”

The opening ribbon cutting ceremony brought out almost 100 people, many of whom brought their dogs. The event which featured a string orchestra and a catered breakfast, also brought out many of the candidates for the city council election on March 8, all of whom were seen working the crowd.

Richard de Gout, a 20-year-resident who was chatted up by several candidates, joked, “I’ve been so busy meeting politicians, I haven’t had time to enjoy the park yet.”

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