Towering ambitions for Boyle Heights

Condos, rentals and retail, with some high-rises, are planned for the sprawling site of the 1930s Wyvernwood apartments.

By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 11, 2008

In the Depression-era Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in the heart of East Los Angeles, the electricity often goes off if you try to run a toaster and a coffeepot at the same time. No cable TV, no high-speed Internet, no air conditioning.

The orange stucco buildings in Boyle Heights, home to about 6,000 residents, are showing their age. The neighborhood has been troubled by crime and gang activity for more than a decade. And what was once “America’s largest privately owned community of rental homes” is ready for another giant step.

Thursday the residents got word about dramatic changes ahead, as urban redevelopment — already remaking Hollywood, Echo Park and downtown — appears ready to leap across the Los Angeles River. And with it comes excitement and angst about how gentrification will change the old neighborhood.

The Miami investment firm that has owned Wyvernwood since 1998 announced plans for a $2-billion redevelopment that would nearly quadruple its size by 2020. By then, all 1,187 existing units would be replaced with 4,400 environmentally sensitive condominiums and apartments, plus retail space.

If finished as planned, the complex would include some 24-story high-rises and rival in scope Park La Brea in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, one of the largest housing projects in the West. Wyvernwood would have more than 20,000 residents served by new stores and offices.

Owners said they hoped to be leaders in a revival of Boyle Heights that would bring large-scale residential and commercial investment to some of the city’s oldest districts. Developers are jockeying to buy another neighborhood landmark, the historic Sears tower and warehouse on Olympic Boulevard, a few blocks away.

“It’s an exciting time for Boyle Heights,” said City Councilman Jose Huizar, who has lived in the Latino neighborhood most of his life. He supports plans for Wyvernwood but also put the owners on notice that the tenants must be a priority.

He vowed that the city approval process would include substantial public comment.

“I want to ensure that existing tenants have the first opportunity to live in new homes and that tenants are treated with respect and taken care of,” he said.

The developer’s executive vice president, Steven Fink, sought to put tenants at ease in a low-key meeting Thursday night for about 200 residents. The development would take at least two years to get city approvals and 10 years more for the stage-by-stage transformation of Wyvernwood, he said.

“No one will be asked to move for any reason associated with this plan until absolutely necessary. . . . We are years away from beginning construction,” Fink said.

Residents offered a variety of comments, including concerns about expected rent hikes, increased density and crime protection. The landlord assured tenants they would be eligible for relocation payments if forced to move.

Barbara McNeely has lived in Wyvernwood, which opened in 1939, for 60 years. When she moved in as a youngster, she recalls, the complex had mostly white residents and had a waiting list, and most tenants were college educated.

“They sent you flowers when you moved in,” she said. “It was quite beautiful and a very good place to raise kids.”

She said she would like to see the comeback of downtown Los Angeles spread into her neighborhood and bring more people with money to spend. Like the popular home-improvement television show, she said, “We need an extreme makeover.”

Things have changed since the 70-acre complex was hailed by the builders as “unusually practical and thoroughly comfortable and convenient.” The 153 mostly two-story buildings in a park-like setting were considered the nation’s largest housing development, so big the builders had to set up a sawmill there to cut enough lumber.

After World War II, the character of the neighborhood began to change; many of its more prosperous residents moved to the suburbs as “white flight” swept Southern California. By the late 1980s, Wyvernwood had a reputation as a haven for gangs

Things have generally gotten better at Wyvernwood in recent years, said Juan Flores, 76, who with his wife, Andrea, moved into the apartments 30 years ago. In the 1980s, he said, drug dealers trolled the neighborhood, drunks stumbled about and young gang members shot it out. One of his sons was assaulted once and his car was shot up one day.

Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
Developer Steven Fink stands by one of the 153 buildings of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights. He is executive vice president of the complex’s owner, Miami-based Fifteen Group, which plans a complete overhaul. “No one will be asked to move for any reason associated with this plan until absolutely necessary,” he said. “… We are years away from beginning construction.”

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