GUEST COMMENTARY - There’s an old adage: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
This idea is particularly relevant as we all begin to experience the effects of climate change. Now is the time to take decisive action to preserve green spaces and parks that are proven to offset the most detrimental impacts of climate change for our local communities.
This brings us to elite private school Harvard-Westlake’s proposed plan for their $40 million+ “River Park” sports campus, which will rob Studio City, a dense urban environment, of a precious resource, Weddington Golf & Tennis. Back in October 2017, Harvard-Westlake purchased the 16-acre property in Studio City bounded by Whitsett Avenue and the Los Angeles River. The School’s plans for a mega-sports complex include a profound decimation of the natural ecosystem that will negatively impact the thriving community of animals, plants, and human beings alike.
The name “Weddington Golf & Tennis” doesn’t do it justice – it makes it sound like a tony, elite club. It is not. The recreation center has been a low-cost, publicly accessible destination for Angelenos of all socioeconomic backgrounds since 1955. The golf course also provides critical green space to the surrounding community and essential shade and cooling, sequesters carbon, supports habitat for wildlife, and allows rainwater to get into groundwater basins.
In 1973, Weddington Golf & Tennis was zoned as agriculture/open space with a condition that specifically limited the scope of new development to protect and conserve its “open space” status. The Weddington Golf & Tennis site was officially identified as historic on Survey LA in 2014 and declared an Historic Cultural Monument by the LA City Council in September 2021. Despite the restrictions on the property, Harvard-Westlake purchased the site in 2017 with the intent to build a massive sports complex for its student body, knowing it had to convince the City to grant them a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and go through an extensive environmental review.
Harvard-Westlake’s project will endanger the community just so a privileged few can participate in the hyper-competitive world of high school sports. Youth sports has become a multi-billion dollar industry, one that Harvard-Westlake is betting on and capitalizing upon. Already, two Harvard-Westlake athletic students, sisters, are among the first high schoolers to receive an endorsement from Nike. The School supports such student endorsements which helps attract more money and delivers top athletes from across the country to its campus.
At this time, the community is waiting for the City to respond to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) filed by Harvard-Westlake. In its response to the DEIR, the Studio City community, aided by environmental attorneys and expert reports, made it clear that City Planning must require Harvard-Westlake to revisit and recirculate the DEIR due to a flawed environmental impact report that downplays the significant ecological and quality-of-life impacts.
On the lowest point along the LA River in the San Fernando Valley, Weddington Golf & Tennis is home to over 400 significant and mature trees that provide essential shade and cooling in our semi-arid climate. Along the river’s edge is the Zev Yaroslavsky Greenway. Planted with native vegetation by the community, it has matured into a thriving, natural habitat over the past eight years.
On the 16-acre site is a biological ecosystem that includes (among other species) owls, Coopers Hawks, raptors, yellow bats, native ground squirrels, skunks, and wild rabbits. The list of insects that live there is long and diverse.
Let’s be clear – no one disagrees that the golf course could benefit from a redesign to reduce water and pesticide use. However, Harvard-Westlake continues to gaslight the public that its proposal is a more environmentally sound solution. This complex includes: removing 240 mature trees and palms; excavating 250,000 cubic yards of soil in order to build over 300,000 sq feet of structures in a flood plain; building 404 more parking spaces than currently on-site; installing eight acres of hardscapes including two artificial turf fields. Ironically the School has dubbed this plan a “River Park.”
That carefully chosen name sounds like green open space along a river. It is not.
A thorough review of the plans reveals that this is neither a park nor sustainable. The actual “River Park” itself is a narrow walking path around a walled-in 11 acres where the community will get to peer in at the places where the public used to play. What we would see is an Olympic swimming pool, a gym, eight tennis courts, and two artificial turf sports fields, all of it private, with limited public access and minimal, if any, community benefit. The mega sports complex, replete with bleachers, a press box and locker rooms, is not simply out of place; it is an appropriation of a living green landscape by commercialized sports.
Harvard-Westlake insists it needs to install artificial turf fields and an ADA ramp to connect the river walk with their campus. This will disturb and disrupt that vital habitat along the LA River, devastating the wildlife. Once installed, artificial turf sheds microplastics and PFAS/PFOS (forever chemicals). Artificial turf creates heat islands, increasing temperatures in the surrounding neighborhoods. Artificial turf also kills the soil beneath the plastic, which creates runoff sending the forever chemicals and microplastics into the LA River. Artificial grass is not recyclable. What’s the point in a plastic bag and plastic straw ban if we flood our environment with pieces of plastic grass?
All this hardscape leaves approximately three acres (not contiguous) for the School to execute its “native plant plan.” These plants will take approximately 50 years to sequester carbon at the rate the current tree canopy does. The School’s plan does nothing to mitigate the fact the proposed River Park will kill off vital trees, plants, and wildlife and exacerbate the problems of density in park-poor Los Angeles. All while the 5x increase in neighborhood traffic (not to mention the impact of years-long construction) will increase local greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
Not only does Harvard-Westlake’s mega-sports complex promise to negatively impact the delicate ecosystem of this LA community, but it also stomps all over the school’s own stated values.
While educators at the School teach that the Earth is an entity we need to treat with care to help sustain life—the acquisition and development of “River Park” teaches students how to take what they want, because they can—because spin is more powerful than substance, and privilege and money allow one to break the rules. The egregious plan to provide fewer than 1,000 students with a $100 million dollar sports facility in a place where generations of Angelenos have enjoyed a respite from the stress, noise and concrete of our City (at a time when our public schools struggle to get the most basic of services and supplies) is antithetical to our City’s values.
Still, all is not well at Harvard-Westlake, where parents have created an anonymous Instagram account called “wokeathw.” It’s anonymous because Harvard-Westlake parents have been warned never to speak out against the School. This Instagram post shows that the parents are well aware of the hypocrisy at Harvard-Westlake:
To its students, Harvard-Westlake preaches the evils of capitalism and says we live on "stolen land." To its parents, HW boasts in this mailer (photo on Instagram) of the construction of a $140M+ private off-campus athletic complex.
On the one hand we can laugh at this latest example of HW's comical embrace of Radical Chic. But on the other, our kids are being taught terrible values: that hypocrisy and dishonesty are fine so long as you virtue-signal the right fashionable politics. And that those fashionable politics are basically meaningless—they are just for show, a way to make being privileged and wealthy truly guilt-free.
It’s said that how we do one thing is how we do everything. Indeed, how Harvard Westlake treats the community now is how the School will treat us in the future. The School has been either unwilling or unable to forge partnerships with community-serving organizations in the immediate area. Instead, they have entered into remunerative partnerships with non-profits located in Westwood, Burbank, San Fernando, and Cypress Park. Though it is admirable for the school to offer these partnerships, they only become effective if the project is approved, offering at least the appearance of somewhat tone-deaf but strategic noblesse oblige.
One of those partnerships is with Friends of LA River (FoLAR) whose mission statement is: We build capacity for communities, students, and future leaders to advocate for nature, climate, and equity on the Los Angeles River. FoLAR's equity statement includes the following: We believe in working with nature and alongside communities to achieve climate resilience, park equity, and environmental health for all.
In the past, FoLAR has stood in coalitions alongside communities fighting inappropriate riverfront development proposed by powerful and well-connected entities. So the decision to engage in a partnership that so blatantly violates every word of its mission and equity statements may distill down to the fact that their Board Chair is an alum and booster of Harvard-Westlake.
It would appear that Harvard-Westlake alumni value money, power and influence over principles. Why fight alongside communities and do the right thing when you can sit back and profit from exploiting the "inevitable"?
If Harvard-Westlake was truly sincere about supporting “community” access, why not start by entering into a partnership with the existing tennis pros who have been teaching the community for decades? Instead, the School has systematically excluded them by charging them exorbitant day rates to teach clinics to kids and adults in the Los Angeles community. The School has stated clearly that no iteration of their sports campus will include golf, which means the robust community of golf pros and soon-to-be displaced golfers will simply be ignored.
All this despite the fact that no permits have been granted to the School. Harvard-Westlake has told the community it will be closing Weddington soon, while promising that it will keep Weddington open until permits are issued. It’s both confusing and misleading.
Currently, Weddington has 16 tennis courts. When the School uses them, 12 courts are blocked out – which is ironic since the Harvard-Westlake Head of Communications told me that the School only needs six courts for its sports complex, and that building eight courts is an act of generosity to the community. The math doesn’t add up.
Community members are not fooled. The truly devastating loss for Los Angeles is a publicly accessible open green space. A few community members may be able to use the billion dollar youth complex in limited ways, but only when Harvard-Westlake unilaterally decides to grant access to its campus.
Harvard-Westlake constantly reminds the community: we bought this land, we own it, we have the money and power to develop this land to suit our needs. And the School feels confident that City Planning will agree because... well, I refer you to recent City Hall scandals involving the pay-to-play culture around discretionary land use.
Harvard-Westlake’s message to Angelenos: “You don’t matter to us.”
The community has begged Harvard-Westlake not to privatize publicly accessible open space and overbuild at the cost of our precious living green landscapes, which are in fact critical infrastructure.
Our message to Harvard-Westlake is clear and reasonable: Be good stewards of the earth and of young minds. Please, do the right thing.
Harvard-Westlake, it is time to rethink this land grab—consider the recent scientific findings regarding PFAS and microplastics, the cost of dumping greenhouse gases into our air, clearcutting a mature tree canopy , the health benefits of living, green open space, and deleterious impacts of bright lights and noise to human health.
It’s clearly time to rethink this ill-advised, ill-timed, ill-fated project.
(Adele Slaughter currently serves on the board of the Studio City Neighborhood Council where she serves on Land Use and is the chair of the Sustainability Committee. She is also a poet and a long time resident of Studio City. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ms. Slaughter.)