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ALISON STATEMAN  | Published on 9/9/2018
It seemed at first like a painfully mismatched fight: A showdown between a local developer and the horse-loving communities of Glendale and Burbank, Calif.
     The conflict in the Glendale Riverside Rancho district of Los Angeles was ignited this February when Art Simonian, the founder of Metro Investments, and Thomas Bell, the owner of Silver Spur Stables located at 1900 West Riverside Drive, filed an application with the City of Glendale to change the stables’ zoning from commercial equestrian to multifamily residential. They didn’t know what they were getting into.
     Simonian and Bell were hoping to demolish the stables, currently housing 80 horses, to make way for 21 townhouses in six three-story buildings on the one-acre parcel on which the stable, built in the 1930s, sits. It would also call for the removal of a 30-feet width of Allen Avenue, an access route to the trail system and Griffith Park. The two hoped to have the project completed by August 2019. Both Simonian and Bell declined to comment on their plans.
     The move became the opening volley, which would be met by stringent opposition from Glendale and Burbank residents who feared the change would threaten the area’s equine heritage and historic character, and remove valuable open space providing riders with reasonable access to Griffith Park and local bridle trails. It would also, in their opinion, put a low-density single-family zone at risk for future zone changes and decimate equestrian businesses serving horse owners and working stables.
     Silver Spur is part of a designated commercial equestrian district in Glendale that occupies the south side of West Riverside Drive, adjacent to the Burbank and Los Angeles County borders at the most westerly point of Glendale.The five-acre Glendale commercial equestrian zone at the center of the controversy counts not only Silver Spur, but several other commercial and private boarding facilities among its equine businesses, including Triple R Boarding Stables, L.A Horse Rentals, Trikee Tack and Whispering Willows among its offerings.
     Jay Geisenheimer, a longtime equestrian, resident and real estate broker with Rodeo Realty specializing in horse properties, was one of the leaders of, the first of two community groups that ultimately helped defeat the project and go against Bell. Bell bought the stable for $1.2 million in 2008 to support his daughter’s equestrian interest. Geisenheimer was brought on by Joanne Hedge, the president of the Glendale Rancho Neighborhood Association, who reached out after learning of the zoning change application filed with the city of Glendale. The group would end up being led by six women with close ties to the Burbank and Glendale rancho and, as Geisenheimer put it “196 years of rancho residency between them.”
     If the zoning had changed, Geisenheimer said it would have had a “domino effect,” effectively wiping out the area. “We have two rental stables, a tack room, lessons, there is so much going on in this little world here. For equestrians, it’s our own little thing and this city has grown around us.”
     “The horse world is a threatened world and this is a huge, huge win,” Geisenheimer added, from a perch at the windowed back room of the Mexican eatery Viva Rancho Cantina, which looks out horse trails, watching as riders strode by to Griffith Park one late summer afternoon.
     The Burbank-Glendale Rancho borders Griffith Park, and spans just south of Alameda and Victory Boulevards, east of California Street, to two streets past Victory Boulevard in Glendale and is mere miles—and worlds away—from major entertainment studios in the area including Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal.
     The Los Angeles Equestrian Center was built in the 1980s, and boards more than 400 horses and hosts equestrian events. Specially zoned to allow horses on private property, the Rancho community draws horse owners and enthusiasts to reside and visit for lessons and events.
     “This neighborhood was a thriving community of horse keeping, both commercial boarding stables and people who keep barns and horses in their backyards and all of this is really because there is an amazing trail system between this area and Griffith Park,” said Emily Gabel-Luddy, Burbank’s mayor and a Burbank Rancho resident since 1994. “It is an ecosystem which is unique in the United States. You will find nothing like it in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, Washington, Portland—you just won’t find this kind of relationship with a park in the center of a huge metropolitan area.”
     While the property at the heart of the zoning change is in Glendale, Geisenheimer said it was important for not only Burbank residents to mobilize to strengthen the cause, but to also show its wider impact on the equestrian community.
     “There are 785 homes in the Rancho [district], with 185 in Glendale and 600 in Burbank,” she said. “Burbank came to the call because we had to; we’re the bigger body of people. I didn’t want to show just how it effects Glendale, but how it effects equestrians around Los Angeles.”
     To do so, she obtained letters of support from major equestrian organizations, including the Los Angeles Equestrian Advisory Committee, Equestrian Trails and local horse businesses, as well as local political leaders, including Glendale Assemblywoman Laura Friedman.
     She set up a meeting with Glendale city officials, including Councilwoman Paula Devine, and the head of community services, Philip Lanzafame, and arranged for Devine and her husband Arthur, both of whom had served on several boards, to come out to view the area in question.
     “[Devine] came with her husband and Joanne [Hedge] and I gave her a tour of Silver Spur. They gave us great direction on how to pursue and what to talk about in front of city staff so we wouldn’t sound like NIMBYs but people who had something valuable to say,” Geisenheimer said.
     Then, she and other opponents of the zoning change began showing up at the weekly Glendale City Council meetings to voice their concerns. They were also prepared to ride their horses over to Glendale City Hall in a Western-style show of protest.
     At the same time, the efforts of a second group, Save Glendale Riverside Rancho, begun in April by Silver Spur patrons Star Irvine and Jim DiCarli, started gaining traction—and press, generating coverage of the conflict in the Glendale News-Press and local broadcast affiliates. The News-Press reported that many residents were discontent with Bell’s rezoning efforts feeling he was unnecessarily trying to make more profit on the sale through the zoning change. They also uncovered a less seemly part of Bell’s past: In 1996, Bell was indicted on charges of using more than $375,000 intended for renovation of buildings damaged during the Northridge earthquake to purchase personal luxury items, which the Los Angeles Times described as the “the biggest fraud prosecution” in the aftermath of the 1994 natural disaster. He served 18 months in prison and was ordered to pay a $350,000 fine.
In the end, the movements garnered more than 3,000 signatures through online and paper petitions.
     Gabel-Luddy, an advocate for the preservation of Western heritage, said she isn’t anti-development, but “for this unique area and I have always felt if there is going to be development, it has to be compatible.”
The Simonian project, in her view, was not.
     “Many other development projects have come in and they haven’t been designed with the understanding of how the neighborhood works and this was going to be another one,” said Gabel-Luddy, speaking about both the design and high-density nature of Simonian’s proposal and others like a planned 65,000-square-foot Whole Foods that were “too dense or too intense.”
     “He wanted 21 small lots on less than an acre of land that were going to be three stories high, with between 10 and 26 feet between the units,” Gabel-Luddy said. “The units were going to be townhouse development, adjacent to one another and then with little alleys in between. When I was working for the city of L.A. and doing small lot subdivisions, this is not one I would consider.”
     In the end, the public pressure, negative attention and support of public officials including Gabel-Luddy resulted in Simonian withdrawing his zoning application on July 23.
     While the future of Silver Spur Stables is still in question, Bell who declined to comment on the zoning change defeat, told Commercial Observer that “we are continuing to run the stables and have no immediate plans to do anything with the property other than continue as we have for the past 10 years owning this property”—the battle did more than just maintain the area’s districting and the stable’s operation. For now, at least. (Bell, who Geisenheimer said received a few verbal offers of $3 million for the property during the zoning dispute, which, consequently, didn’t pan out after its defeat, is still likely to sell the business.)
     “To me, it raised the profile of the Glendale Rancho in the eyes of their staff officials,” Geisenheimer said. “I don’t think they’re going to go pitter-pattering back over here so quickly anymore looking to invade our little world because they found out it’s not so little. Now that it’s over, that’s the biggest win. The Glendale Rancho profile has been completely elevated and the rancho now, is one big united community.”
     Seemingly proving Geisenheimer’s point, a week before the zoning application was withdrawn, a monument honoring the local Glendale equestrian community was installed at the intersection directly across the street form Silver Spur. Hedge, looking to strengthen the branding of the Glendale side of the rancho, had been advocating for the monument as part of a larger public works project in the area to improve streets and sidewalks.
     For Gabel-Luddy, the project also inspired the commissioning of a report on the history of the area due out this week, which, she hopes is the first of many aimed at strengthening public recognition—and potential zoning and land use protections— of the area’s singular nature and Western heritage.
“It’s just unique in the country and it seems like we should be celebrating and working with it rather than watching it gradually erode away,” she said.