Developer Faces New Scrutiny from Neighbors

By-right apartment project already approved by the city

By Eddie Rivera, News Editor

Luke Vella just wants to build his apartments on an empty lot next to the Tujunga post office. In August of 2013, he had brought a plan to the Land Use Committee (LUC) of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, looking to build his complex on Tujunga Canyon Boulevard (TCB) near Valmont Avenue. The property lies between TCB and Redmont Avenue, a short cul-de-sac surrounded by apartment buildings.

Following his presentation to the LUC, Vella and his architect, Ben Schulman, were asked to return to the committee at a later date with further-developed plans. They voluntarily returned in June of this year with more developed plans, and then someone in the neighborhood asked about parking.

Though witness accounts vary, Vella claims to have met a hostile audience at the committee meeting. Vella told The Foothill Record that he was accused of “changing his plans” and that he had been constantly challenged and interrupted by some committee members as he gave his presentation.

Cindy Cleghorn, the LUC chair, disputed Vella’s claim, telling The Foothill Record, “Nobody, despite what he says, is opposing his project. What he is distracted with are neighbors who are concerned about the parking access [on Redmont]. That’s the question that needs to be worked on.”

Cleghorn blames the L.A. Department of City Planning for the kerfuffle. The builder, she said, “is just ranting about how he has a ‘by-right’ project, when maybe it’s all about how the city didn’t look at what the impact was going to be on Redmont. That’s a 150-foot street that will now have 20, 40, 50 more cars coming through there.

“He is providing enough access for his project, no problem,” Cleghorn continued, “but it’s the access to get to the property through a dead-end street that now suddenly has a driveway at the end of it.”

But Vella, a long-time local resident, claims to have the law on his side, citing the L.A. Department of Transportation “Manual of Policies and Procedures” on driveway design. According to the manual, TCB qualifies as a “secondary highway” because it accommodates “more than 10,000 vehicle trips per typical weekday.”

Section 321 of the 2003 manual (on driveway design) states, “The basic principle of driveway location planning is to minimize possible conflicts between users of the parking facility and users of the abutting street system. The public interest requires optimum capacity of streets and highways to carry traffic with minimum potential for traffic accidents. The safety of pedestrians is also considered.”

The manual adds, “Driveways should not be permitted along arterial highways where the proposed development is residential, and access is possible using an alley or non-arterial street.” Thus, according to both City Planning and Vella, building a driveway facing TCB would be dangerous.

“You look at this street, and you look at all the traffic, and there is no way you can put a driveway here. You’re just asking for an accident,” says Vella.

The development also sits next to the landmark Blarney Castle, a home on TCB owned by Jayson Rivest, a motion graphics designer at Universal Pictures. Rivest agrees with Vella’s assessment.

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The 2013 plans showed 20 units in two two-story buildings, one building with eight units and the other with 12, along with two parking spaces per unit and six guest-parking spaces in the rear of the building along Redmont. Each 1,000 square-foot apartment would have two-bedrooms and two-baths, with laundry facilities on site.

In addition, the property would sit just below street grade, so its 28 foot height would appear as 22 feet from the street and “not appear overwhelming in height,” according to LUC meeting minutes. The project would involve minimum grading, and Vella stated that he intended to follow Foothill Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan’s Design Guidelines with regard to bicycle parking and water use. The developers hoped to have the project completed by mid-2016.

The lot itself had sat unused for decades, having once been used as a parking lot for the Tujunga post office. Sixties-era parking-lot lights still hover above the western corner of the property. Several other builders had previously bid on the property over the years, but eventually backed away.

The Vella/Schulman plans showed a five-foot setback from the property line next to Blarney Castle and a 25-foot setback from the front. According to the plans, “the project would feel like community-living garden apartments with inner courtyards and benches.”

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Though Rivest originally was concerned about the impact the development might have on his own property, he and Vella have since developed a friendly and cordial relationship. Rivest followed the development every step through the city’s plan-check process, and made periodic visits to the city’s permit site.

“When we were clearing our property here,” recalled Rivest, “Luke gave us access through his site, so that the cleaning crew could actually get to our site, since it was so overgrown.” Rivest also allowed Vella use of his water temporarily. “He’s been a great neighbor,” said Rivest. “Very accommodating.”

And, says Rivest, the plan was always to have the parking in the back (on Redmont).

Rivest bought his property in October of 2012. “Since then,” he said, “there have been three major accidents on TCB. In the morning, there are at least fifteen cars lined up at the intersection [which is a four-way stop], and sometimes it will take me [several] minutes to get out of my driveway, since the intersection is never clear.

“It would have been crazy to put a driveway on Tujunga Canyon [Boulevard],” Rivest continued, “because I know someone would have been killed.” Rivest also pointed out that the development would not add more cars to the street, since it allows for 2 1/2 spaces for each apartment, plus guest spaces.

“I understand the issue with cars on Redmont,” Rivest continued, “but most of these buildings have enough parking for their tenants. There is no reason for anyone to park on Redmont.”

Both Vella and Cleghorn have stated that neither is interested in mudslinging or creating animosity. Said Cleghorn, “He is ranting and raving about this and that, but if he has a by-right project, let him build.”


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