With a 3-1 vote Monday night, West Hollywood’s City Council approved conducting a feasibility study on possible uses for Laurel House, the city-owned house at 1343 N. Laurel Ave., just south of Sunset Boulevard. The 102-year-old house has sat vacant for the past 15 years, although the property’s front and side yards have been used as a public park since 2011.
With that the vote, the Council also instructed the city’s arts division to investigate arts programming and a potential artist-in-residence program for the house.
“[This item is] an attempt to balance historic preservation along with public park space along with utility and community use space and to come up with something so the property doesn’t languish there without providing any benefits to the community,” said Councilmember John Duran, who serves on a council subcommittee about the property along with Councilmember Lauren Meister.
Community visioning workshops held in 2013 and 2014 suggested the house might best be used as an arts and cultural center or a community gathering/meeting space, but the city never moved forward with those ideas. Instead, the city opted to “mothball” the house until it was ready to reopen the community discussion about uses for the house.
Reopening the discussion seems likely to reignite the controversy that ripped through the city in the mid-2000s about the property.
Back then, one side vigorously pushed to build senior-citizen, low-income housing there. Meanwhile, the other side pushed equally hard against the housing, saying that went against the original owner’s wishes when she donated the property to the city.
Elsie Weisman gave the 7,000-square foot house and surrounding property to the city in 1997 with the verbal stipulation the property not be developed. Although Weisman never put that stipulation in writing, the late Councilmember Sal Guarriello, who was mayor at the time of the property transfer, confirmed those were Weisman’s wishes during a 2006 council meeting.
By that point, the city had moved ahead with plans to construct two buildings with 21 units plus underground parking at the rear of the property and also transform the main house and chauffer’s cottage into seven more units for a total of 28 apartments on the property. The city had even received a $4.2 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build the project.
However, Weisman’s son, Richard Weisman, along with Allegra Allison, a longtime resident of the house affectionately known as “Tara” (because that was the name of the house in Elsie Weisman’s favorite movie, “Gone With the Wind”), filed a lawsuit against the city.
That lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which in 2008 ruled the city had not gotten sufficient public input into the project. The city had already applied for the HUD grant before holding the first public meeting regarding the property; therefore the court ruled the public process was merely a justification for a pre-determined decision.
Monday night, the reignited sides of the “Tara controversy” were already evident during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Resident Manny Rodriguez called for the Council to put low-income housing on the site, calling the earlier push to block the senior housing there one of the “great failures of local activism in West Hollywood.”
“It’s because of local activists, some of whom we’ve never heard from again, that this valuable and grand property has remained dormant, useless and sad for the last 15 years,” said Rodriguez.
He also called community visioning workshops of 2013 and 2014 “misguided” and “ill conceived.”
“The vision expressed in that survey isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” Rodriguez said.
Meanwhile resident Steve Martin praised the Council for moving forward with plans to figure out what to do with the Colonial Revival style house.
“We seem to be still fighting old battles and we’re just not allowing our imaginations to be used in ways that are really productive here,” said Martin, who suggested an artist-in-residence program could work beautifully there if is properly administered.
Councilmember John Heilman, who cast the only vote against the feasibility study, said he was in favor of housing on the site (he was a proponent for senior housing there from the start), but didn’t see why it should be limited to artists.
“Prioritizing artists over social workers or teachers or disabled, long-term residents of the city doesn’t seem to make sense given the amount of money that we’re likely going to have to spend to rehab this property,” said Heilman.
Heilman suggested getting input about uses for the property from other boards such as the Senior Advisory Board or the Disabilities Advisory Board, as well as the city’s social services department.
Councilmember Lindsey Horvath was absent from the meeting as she is attending a technology conference in Paris.