Mini-city project on shaky ground
By Brandon Lowrey, Staff Writer
While a judge's ruling earlier this month has left the proposed Las Lomas mini-city battered and bloodied, experts say it's the dismal economy that may deal the death blow.
The Las Lomas Land Co. is considering appealing a Superior Court judge's decision to throw out its lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles - which in March said it wouldn't consider the development - as it fights for the life of its unpopular project.
"The court's decision was disappointing and we are deciding on how we might still continue to move forward with the case. An appeal is likely," Carlyle W. Hall Jr., an attorney for Las Lomas, said in a written statement.
But even if the company were to win an appeal and somehow ease local governments' fears over the 555-acre project's impact on traffic and infrastructure, the company probably couldn't build it now because the economy is so bad, said Phil Hart, managing director of the Los Angeles Urban Land Institute.
"The developer's probably happy (to have lost), given the economic climate," Hart said.
The ambitious project would have included more than 5,500 homes along with shops and offices in the hills along Interstate 5 in the Newhall Pass between Los Angeles and Santa Clarita.
But investors are spooked and growth has been freezing across the nation. Few new projects are springing up - especially of Las Lomas' scale, Hart said.
"Basically, transactions are dead," he said. And "if you can't get financing, you can't transact a deal."
Dan Palmer, who was president of Las Lomas Land Co. until he resigned when the judge threw out his case Dec. 12, began snatching up pieces of land in the Newhall Pass in 1998. He initially proposed a bigger project, with 5,800 homes, a shopping mall, shuttles and a trolley.
Politicians and community activists trashed the idea, so Palmer returned in 2005 with a slightly scaled-back plan that included duplexes, town homes and condominiums, plus some shops and offices spread among six park-ringed villages. It would have 282 acres of open space.
Even so, Los Angeles, Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County all passionately rejected Las Lomas, citing concerns over wildlife corridors, traffic, water and other infrastructure problems.
Other unique ideas Palmer presented - including a shuttle system and wired concierge service that residents could use to order food and groceries, and have them delivered by electric vehicles - only served to draw mockery from critics.
Among them was Kim Thompson, a Granada Hills community activist who said she felt the large development was unrealistic. She merrily derided the project as "Disneyland."
"(Palmer) was in Fantasyland," Thompson said.
And to allay her concerns over a traffic nightmare in the Newhall Pass, she said Palmer told her "people were going to move in there and they were never going to leave. Plus, he didn't have the infrastructure. I could tell the city was going to get stuck with his bill, picking up the fire department, the kids' (schooling) and the police."
Palmer did not return a phone call from the Daily News and a spokesman for Las Lomas Land Co. said the company declined to comment beyond a written statement expressing disappointment about the judge's decision.
The prospect of the development united the three involved governments in opposition.
Santa Clarita City Councilman Bob Kellar said it would be an eyesore in the Newhall Pass that would ruin a wildlife corridor and make traffic unbearable.
"It's just, absolutely, for lack of better terminology, simply unacceptable," said Kellar, a real estate agent. "Frankly, I am delighted to see that the outcome has evolved such as it has."
Even so, not everyone is convinced the project is gone for good.
"The unfortunate part of that is they have a history of just playing hardball," said Mitch Englander, chief of staff for L.A. City Councilman Greig Smith, who opposed the project.
Hart added: "Sometimes a pause can be a refresher. Real estate developers by nature are optimists. It's still a long shot, but it's possible."
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