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The Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan: A Developers’ Bonanza

OVER-DEVELOPMENT ON THE WAY-Developers got an awesome gift on Christmas Day 2013 when the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan went into effect.

Five years on, though, this developers’ bonanza is a bust for middle- to low-income workers and residents in the southwest San Fernando Valley. In the midst of LA’s twinned crises of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan aims to graft a dense, skyrise-filled, luxury enclave onto Woodland Hills, a suburb distinguished by excessive heat and a congested stretch of US-101, as well as residents who love to shop at Costco. 

Passed as an ordinance by the LA City Council, the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan guides land use and redevelopment of the 1.5-square-mile Warner Center neighborhood of Woodland Hills. The plan jettisons density restrictions and height limits, encouraging high-rise construction and shared parking, while granting streamlined entitlements and processing of applicants’ projects. The resulting building boom shows no signs of slowing, attracting developers and investors from throughout the state and from places as far away as Texas, Florida, China, and France. 

With 10 large projects underway and many more approved or proposed, the specific plan began a five-year review by the LA Department of City Planning (LADCP) in December. The time for concerned area residents to urge changes to the plan is now. The LADCP is accepting written comments, and a meeting before the City Planning Commission will take place later in February or March, according to statements made by city planning officials at the only open-house-style public meeting on the plan’s five-year review, hosted by LADCP on January 30 in Van Nuys. The department is required to submit a status report to the city within 90 days of the plan’s five-year anniversary. 

Ahistorical and Anti-poor 

The specific plan created eight subdistricts in Warner Center that are unrelated to how longtime locals think of the place: Topanga, River, Uptown, North Village, College, Commerce, Park, and Downtown. The plan allows 19,000 new residential units to be built in addition to Warner Center’s 2008 baseline of 6,200, an extreme density for a community with such hot summers, inadequate public transit, and little open space. 

Twenty-eight significant projects have been filed so far under the specific plan, 15 of which have been approved. All but three of the 28 projects have a residential component, with no affordable units proposed. The 13 projects filed with the city but not yet approved offer 6,089 market-rate or luxury residential units, almost all of them rentals. Eighteen of the 28 projects mix residential units with office, commercial, retail, and/or entertainment uses. (For more details about the significant projects filed under the specific plan, see “Selected Warner Center Projects” below.) 

And although the specific plan intended to create a district where people would live so close to work they could ride a bike or walk there, the rollout of the plan is lopsided: No new major employer has yet committed to relocating to the district. Whether current Warner Center office workers who commute in decide to move there remains to be seen. 

Of the 1,998 market-rate units under construction in Warner Center, 379 are nearly complete at Fairfield Residential’s Vela on OX in the College subdistrict. A studio apartment in this luxury development starts at $2,130 a month. Using the federal definition of housing affordability, i.e., rent costs no more than 30% of a household’s annual gross income, a household must earn $85,200 a year to afford that tony studio, hardly a reasonable expectation for the 22,000 students attending LA Pierce College less than one mile away. 

Recognizing the need for affordable housing in Warner Center, LA City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield (CD 3) passed a motion in May to study the feasibility of including an affordable-housing requirement in the specific plan moving forward. The process to craft this policy is ongoing. 

In response to the councilmember’s motion, the Woodland Hills Impacts and Policies (WHIP) Committee of the Woodland Hills–Warner Center Neighborhood Council (WHWCNC) submitted a set of options last fall. Two recommendations, if pursued by the city, spell trouble for low- to moderate-income renters, including those who have lived in Warner Center for years. One is that there be no mandate for affordable housing in Warner Center, and the other is that the scant existing affordable housing be torn down to make way for denser affordable complexes. The chair of the WHIP Committee, August Steurer, and a WHIP Committee member, Sean McCarthy, also served on the Warner Center Community Advisory Committee, one of the bodies that helped forge the specific plan. 

The Mega-Projects 

Four of the not-yet-approved projects are mega-developments. These projects are Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s (U-R-W) redevelopment of the 34-acre Promenade Mall property; Adler Realty Investments’ redevelopment of a 24-acre corporate office park on the corner of Burbank and De Soto; Sandstone Properties’ proposed 25- and 27-story luxury residential towers on Canoga; and Spieker Realty Investments’ 17.6-acre proposed mixed-use development for seniors at Canoga and Burbank. 

A fifth mega-project to be determined, on the former Rocketdyne property adjacent to Westfield Topanga’s parking structure, has to wait until ongoing remediation of an underground toxic plume is complete. Sixty years of aerospace research and manufacturing on the 47-acre property left tetrachloroethene, total petroleum hydrocarbons, and trichloroethylene in the soil, soil vapor, and groundwater. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) tracks the progress of the remediation efforts. 

Triple Five Group, the Edmonton, Canada–based owner of the largest malls in North America, the Edmonton Mall and Mall of America, is purchasing the property from United Technologies Corporation, according to statements made by public officials. As an indication of its commitment and connections, Triple Five already has a representative on the advisory board to the recently re-activated Warner Center Transportation Management Organization. 

The Rocketdyne site is in the Uptown subdistrict, where industrial, commercial, residential, and retail uses are all meant to take place “around a central park.” The property has the potential for a 6.035-million-square-foot development, or the equivalent of almost four Westfield Topanga malls (see uptownatwarnercenter.com). At a recent general meeting of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization, City Councilmember Blumenfield said that Triple Five Group awaited “environmental clearances” before submitting development plans to the city. 

Lacunae 

The Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan has a number of deficiencies, including no mandates for affordable housing, a new police station, or publicly owned parks, schools, or libraries. It also has no requirement to hire local workers in the construction trades. Area workers and residents are waking up to the plan’s flaws. 

One group, in particular, has attended several neighborhood council board meetings and showed up in force at the LADCP’s open house on January 30. Union workers from Local 661 of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters demand that Warner Center developers pay prevailing wages to construction workers. They also want the city to add a community workforce agreement to the specific plan, which would require developers to hire local workers. 

Jason Green, 36, a carpenter with Local 661, said he and several colleagues had visited construction sites in Warner Center and discovered that workers were paid an unlivable wage of $16.75 an hour and were traveling long distances to job sites. (This has not been independently confirmed.) The prevailing wage for a journeyman carpenter is $42.41 an hour. 

“You know, I don’t know how that’s gonna help people … in Woodland Hills, getting paid $16.75,” Green said. “The carpenters feel it doesn’t matter if you’re union, nonunion. You deserve a livable wage when you’re building with your hands.” He spoke of the pride of building in the community where he lives. 

Proponents of the specific plan tout its necessity for Millennials. But Millennials are having a hard time moving up the economic ladder: more households headed by Millennials (ages 18 to 35 in 2016) exist in poverty than any other living generation, according to reports from the Pew Research Center’s Richard Fry. Millennials are moving less frequently than prior generations, too, and as a group, they suffer from lack of good job opportunities since the Great Recession and may be saddled with loads of student debt. Four-fifths of those under age 35 who buy homes prefer “single-family detached houses,” reported Chapman University demographer Joel Kotkin in 2017. 

Who, then, will benefit from the development boom in Warner Center? Apartments are increasingly unaffordable. The average rent of market-rate units skyrocketed 33% from 2013 to 2018, according to a June report in Curbed LA, and was several hundred dollars higher than the citywide average last spring. 

It’s hard to believe that the building frenzy will benefit residents over the long term. The developers, though, will be killing it. 

Selected Warner Center Projects 

This list of significant and major projects in Warner Center includes those under construction, proposed, or approved. When information was available, the geographic location of the developer is provided in parentheses or included in the project’s description. 

Proposed Mega-Projects Not Yet Approved 

Promenade 2035 Project, 6100 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., a mixed-use redevelopment of the 34-acre Promenade Mall property, U-R-W, 23 buildings ranging from one to 28 stories plus a 15,000-seat entertainment and sports stadium. U-R-W, based in Paris, was formed in 2018 when commercial-retail developer Unibail-Rodamco purchased the Australian company Westfield and retained the brand, according to the company website. 

Proposed are 1,432 luxury apartments, 244,000 square feet of retail space, 629,000 square feet of office space, two hotels with 572 guest rooms, and a 15,000-seat roofless stadium, according to the executive summary of the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR). Among the 23 buildings are seven towers: two high-rises with 28 floors; one with 19; two with 18 plus roof decks; and two with 15, according to a plot plan from Westfield. 

Phased construction over 13 to 15 years will move in a counterclockwise order from the northeast corner around to the southeast corner of the site. The LADCP is working on its response to the many comments submitted as part of the public comment period on the draft SEIR. The final EIR will likely be issued in the spring. 

20920–21051 Warner Center Lane and 20931–20971 Burbank Blvd., Adler Realty Investments (Woodland Hills), a 10-year redevelopment of an existing, occupied 24-acre corporate office park at the corner of Burbank and De Soto. Proposed here are 10 buildings encompassing 1,029 luxury residential units, a 228-room hotel, 168 luxury condominiums, and 1.25 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail space. In the mix are four office towers, including one with 24 stories. 

6366/6400/6410 Canoga Ave., Sandstone Properties (Los Angeles), 610 residential units plus 62,560 square feet of nonresidential floor area in two towers, 25 and 27 stories, respectively. 

5500 Canoga Ave., Spieker Realty Investments LLC (Menlo Park), 566 independent-living units, 129 guest rooms, and retail on 17.6 acres adjacent to US-101, 6 stories. This 1,269,592-square-foot mixed-use eldercare complex would offer memory care, assisted living, and skilled nursing care, as well as 231,184 square feet of nonresidential uses. Soil and groundwater contamination on the site are currently being investigated by the LARWQCB. 

Mega-Project to Be Determined 

6633 Canoga Ave., 47 acres, the former Rocketdyne site. The specific plan encourages thousands of residential units in a mixed-use development that could include commercial, industrial, and retail buildings. The sale of the property to Triple Five Group is almost complete. Ongoing remediation of the toxic plume under the site is being monitored by the LARWQCB. 

Mixed-Use Developments under Construction 

6041 Variel Avenue, BCEGI International Company (Beijing), 263 apartments and 11 live-work units in 7 stories; 66,504-square-foot, 12-story commercial tower; 484 parking spaces in a two-level above-grade parking garage and one story of subterranean parking. 

Q West, 6263 Topanga Canyon Blvd., California Home Builders (Canoga Park), 347 luxury apartment units, 2 levels of underground parking, a ground floor with offices and retail spaces, 7 stories. 

Q East, northeast corner of Erwin and Variel (6200 Variel), California Home Builders, 241 luxury apartments, 46,345 square feet of ground-floor commercial and retail space, 7 stories. 

6801 N. Canoga Avenue/21407 W. Vanowen St., Panoptic Development (Pasadena), 150 apartments on five stories above 8,094 square feet of ground-floor retail space, 31 parking spaces on first level, two levels of subterranean parking, total 6 stories. 

21121 Vanowen St., Yaya Vanowen (Los Angeles), 101 apartments, 3,777 square feet of ground-floor retail, parking is subterranean, 7 stories. 

Vela on OX, 21221 Oxnard Street, Fairfield Residential (San Diego), 379 luxury apartments, including live/work units, 5 stories. This project is near completion. The developer also has entitlement for a 71,000-square-foot office tower to be built at a later date. 

Residential-Only Developments under Construction 

Skye at Warner Center, 20944 Vanowen, Adler Realty Investments, the Quillin Group (Calabasas), and Strategic Realty Holdings (Calabasas), 38 one- and two-bedroom apartments, parking is underground, 6 stories. 

21425 Vanowen, CityView (Los Angeles), 174 one- and two-bedroom apartments, street-level and basement parking together hold 258 parking spaces, 6 stories. 

Evolution Warner Center, 6606 Variel, Evolution Strategic Partners (Studio City), 277 apartments, including live/work units, 309 parking spots, 7 stories. 

6800 Variel, California Home Builders, 18 condominium units, parking is on ground floor, 5 stories. 

Adjacent to Warner Center 

22055–22121 Clarendon Street, AMCAL Equities (Texas), 335 market-rate apartments, 5 stories. On the site of the old Woodland Hills Post Office, it is adjacent to Warner Center and a few hundred feet from Topanga Canyon Blvd. 

Approved Commercial Development, Not Begun 

Former Sears Building at Westfield Topanga Mall, 21851 Victory, U-R-W (Paris), this redevelopment includes eight restaurants with up to 3,800 seats; a food hall with 1,600 seats; and nine luxury movie theatres. 

5957 Variel, Home 2 Suites by Hilton, FPG Development Group (Florida), 174 guest rooms with retail at ground floor, 7 stories. 

Approved Residential Development, Not Begun 

6233–6279 Variel, SBLP Warner Center, LLC, senior housing complex, including 197 independent housing units, 94 assisted-living, 32 memory-care rooms, 7 stories. The developer has asked for a 26% parking reduction, or 286 parking spaces for the complex. 

Proposed Large Projects, Not Yet Approved 

6109 De Soto, California Home Builders, 358-unit luxury residential mixed-use complex with 69,598 square feet of nonresidential space, 7 stories. Two levels of parking, one at street level and one underground, will offer 615 spaces. 

21300 Califa Street, California Home Builders, 194 market-rate apartment units and 19,041 square feet of commercial space in the first phase; 191,950 square feet of office space in a 24-story tower in the second phase. 

21201 Victory Blvd., Levine Family Properties LLC, 244 market-rate apartment units, including 61 work-live units, with 50,550 square feet of nonresidential space, 219 parking spaces, 7 stories. 

The Q on Erwin, southeast corner of Erwin and Variel (6140–6160 N. Variel), California Home Builders, 260 luxury apartments, 51,684 square feet of nonresidential uses, 493 parking spaces, 7 stories. 

6330/6338/6340 Variel, Variel Court L.P., 395 residential units, including 7 live/work units, 8,100 square feet of commercial and retail, 81,650-square-foot office tower, 625 parking spaces in three levels (one is underground), 8 stories (residential), 10 stories (office tower). 

21300 Oxnard, 21300 Oxnard LLC, 134 assisted-living and memory-care residential units, 143,824 square feet of medical office and commercial space, 6 stories. 

21001 Kittridge, FF Realty IV, LLC (San Diego), 275 luxury apartments, 418 parking spaces, 5 stories. 

6636 Variel/21050 Kittridge, Hanover R. S. Limited Partnership (Houston), 394 residential units. 

21515 Vanowen, 21515 Vanowen Street Associates LLC, 184 apartments. 

Sources for this list: the Zone Information and Map Access System (ZIMAS.lacity.org); case reports, PLUM Committee of the WHWCNC; the LA Department of City Planning; GeoTracker of the State Water Resources Control Board; environmental impact reports; San Fernando Valley Business Journal; Urbanize LA; LA Curbed; the Real Deal; and the January 30 public meeting on the five-year status report on the specific plan. 

Where to Voice Your Opinions 

Public comments on the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan are being accepted by the LA Department of City Planning now. Send your statements without delay to Warner Center 2035 Plan Unit Head Tim Fargo here: tim.fargo@lacity.org or Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan Status Report, 6262 Van Nuys Blvd., 4th Floor, Room 430, Van Nuys, CA 91401. Send copies to Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, councilmember.blumenfield@lacity.org; LA City Council President Herb Wesson, councilmember.wesson@lacity.org; and Director of City Planning, Vince Bertoni, vince.bertoni@lacity.org. 

Note: A shorter version of this article, along with the list of developments, was published on February 10 at messengermountainnews.com.

 

(Gina K. Thornburg, PhD, is a geographer, writer, editor, and community activist based in Woodland Hills. She serves as the at-large alternate on the WHWCNC board. Any views expressed in this article are hers and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the board.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.