December 9, 2015

The Fight to Save Wyvernwood, L.A.'s First Large-Scale Garden Apartment

  • By: Lauren Walser

photo by: Los Angeles Conservancy

Wyvernwood, in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, opened in 1939 as housing for middle-income families.

Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood were built with people in mind. There’s a large central green space where residents can congregate and kids can run around. Each of the 143 buildings is built around grassy garden areas, so that residents walk out their front door and into a park-like setting, rather than a busy street. The buildings, minimalist in design with low-pitched roofs, are positioned to let it plenty of sunlight and fresh air, while still giving each unit a sense of privacy.

Opened in 1939 on nearly 70 acres, Wyvernwood was the first large-scale garden apartment built in Los Angeles. And like so many garden apartments in the city today, its future is threatened.

First, some background on garden apartments: This style of multi-family complex has its origins in the Garden City Movement, an urban planning method championed by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom in the late-19th century. Seeing the overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions in Europe’s urban centers, Howard and later Garden City advocates envisioned planned, self-contained communities away from the noise and pollution of the city’s core. These housing developments would feature open spaces, lots of natural light, and a separation of pedestrians and traffic. (We'll show you another L.A.-area garden apartment, Lincoln Place, in the Winter 2016 issue of Preservation.)

But most of all, these garden apartments would emphasize community, through communal spaces and low-density layouts. Wyvernwood is a prime example of that. Throughout the years, the residents have really made it their own, Fine says, with the largely Latino community establishing new traditions and adding new layers of history to the 76-year-old site.

“Wyvernwood is a community. People call it home. And they really mean that,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Many of the people who live there have lived there for multiple years, and in some cases multiple decades. It’s where they met their friends and their partners. They look out for one another. The kids all play together. It’s so special.”

Since 2007, the residents of Wyvernwood have been fighting its demolition. The complex’s owner, Miami-based Fifteen Group Land and Development LLC, has proposed to level Wyvernwood and replace it with a $2 billion development. That development would quadruple the site’s density and eliminate significant amounts of green space in the neighborhood.

“[The proposed development] is a different type of development, which we’re seeing more often now,” Fine says. “It’s less about landscape and a sense of place and people getting to know one another, and it’s more about creating more units.”

The residents and a coalition of local organizations, including the Los Angeles Conservancy, have been locked in an ongoing battle, holding protests, circulating petitions, and voicing their concerns to city officials. They’re fighting to save an important landmark—and their home.

“There’s a housing crisis in Los Angeles, no question about that,” Fine says. “And we need to address it. But we want to look for a win-win opportunity, where we can create some density without total destruction and loss. There’s an opportunity for change, but how do you manage change in a way that doesn’t call for a complete loss of community?”

Los Angeles has one of the largest collections of garden apartments in the country, but they’re increasingly threatened with new development. The qualities that make them so appealing to renters—low density, lots of green space—also make them attractive to developers. To that end, the Los Angeles Conservancy launched its Los Angeles Garden Apartment Network in 2012 to provide resources for those who live in or own these types of multi-family complexes.

“Garden apartments like Wyvernwood are so unique,” Fine says. “And we may never build places like that again.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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