Bill Nye the Science Guy is used to explaining atoms, molecules, and cells, but real estate zoning laws are an entirely different universe.
On the morning of August 24, Nye stood outside Van Nuys City Hall in his signature bow tie. On the docket inside was a development project spanning Weddington Golf & Tennis, a sports facility in Studio City. “It’s beautiful, it is an oasis, it is an emerald jewel in the middle of urban sprawl,” Nye, a longtime Studio City resident, says of the land. “When it gets paved over it will break our hearts.”
Six years earlier Harvard-Westlake, a $46,900-per-year prep school with a nearby campus in Studio City, purchased the 16-acre golf and tennis complex for $42 million. Since then the school has become mired in a protracted public fight over its plans for the land.
News of a private school purchasing a golf course spread quickly. “It’s hard to live in Los Angeles and not be aware of [Harvard-Westlake’s purchase],” says Jamie Bakal, an L.A.-based education consultant. Harvard-Westlake is known as Hollywood power players’ school of choice, with first-class academics and athletics. Within Studio City, the school has tried to foster goodwill over the years, sending staff to a local food drive and opening up its track course to neighbors.
Nye fell in love with Weddington thanks to its nine-hole disc golf course, which he plays a few times a month. Much to his chagrin, Harvard-Westlake has no real plans for disc (i.e., Frisbee) golf. But its proposal, dubbed “Harvard-Westlake River Park,” does include plans for a six-acre publicly accessible park, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a two-story gymnasium, two athletic fields, eight tennis courts, and a 500-car underground garage. The sports facilities would be available to community-based organizations when they weren’t in use by Harvard-Westlake. Save Weddington, a nonprofit opposing the development, refers to the proposed plan as a “sportzilla.”
Nye and Save Weddington object to the proposal’s environmental, noise, and traffic impacts—and they’re not alone. Even AG Jeans, the high-end denim brand, waded into the battle, manufacturing $68 bucket hats and $178 sweatpants embroidered with “Save Weddington Golf & Tennis.”
But Nye’s appearance in August didn’t sway local officials. The Los Angeles City Planning Commission approved Harvard-Westlake’s proposal by a 7-0 vote. In September, Save Weddington appealed the decision to the city council, but the appeal failed. Today, Harvard-Westlake has the green-light to begin construction.
“People with money looking for real estate were able to acquire rights to it, while the rest of us were just going there and throwing discs around,” Nye says. If he and his buddies wanted to buy Weddington, which Harvard-Westlake has operated at a loss since the purchase, they had the chance. The owners’ desire to sell stretched back decades. By 2017 the property was on the market again and up for grabs. There was no secretive backroom deal in the dead of night to snag the land. Instead, the deal went down thanks to a relationship cultivated by luck.
When parents cut those checks every year so their children can attend a top-notch school, they expect them home in time for dinner. But that’s not always the case at Harvard-Westlake, which boasts a $100 million-plus endowment, larger than some colleges’. “Many of our athletes currently have to wait for practice to start late in the evening, because the practices are stacked back to back,” says Rick Commons, the school’s president. “Some of our athletes aren’t getting home until 9:30 p.m.”
The late nights stem from the school offering more athletic programs than its facilities can support. By the time Commons took the top job in 2013, Harvard-Westlake was in the midst of a decades-long mission to add field space (and get its students home in time for whatever the cook made for dinner). At that point, the plan involved building a three-story parking garage with an athletic field on top and connecting it to the Studio City campus via a sky bridge. Hundreds of locals spoke out against the project, which the school abandoned.
Commons began looking for space elsewhere. He discovered that Weddington Golf & Tennis, just half a mile from the Studio City campus, was on the market. The property had been owned by the same family since the 1890s, when it was a sheep farm. In the 1950s the land became a golf course, soon attracting the likes of Bob Hope and Clint Eastwood. Whereas velvet-roped clubs like Los Angeles Country Club and Riviera Country Club kept the public away, Weddington Golf & Tennis allowed the public to play golf at low cost. That’s part of the reason locals speak of the deal as if Harvard-Westlake had privatized public land.
In 2016 Commons made the 20-minute trek on foot to informally view the complex. By chance, one of the property’s owners was on the premises when he arrived, and the two began to chat. “At the time, he thought they were still going to succeed in being able to get this property sold to a housing development,” Commons recalls. Commons told the owner to reach out if the deal fell through. A few weeks later the owner called, and in October 2017 the deal was finalized.
“We realized instantly that with this acquisition, we could do not only what we aimed to do for our students, we could do for the community what they had long been asking for,” Commons says. With the new deal the community would get a publicly accessible park, and Harvard-Westlake students could practice at reasonable hours.
But six years later Harvard-Westlake, whose alums include Billie Lourd, Alex Israel, and Eric Garcetti, finds itself facing defiant opponents. “I still struggle to understand why community members oppose the project given our desire to share it, our plans not to rezone it, and to make it recreational,” Commons says. “That’s where my naïveté has been a little battered.”
Buying the complex turned out to be easy; building on it has proved harder. Shortly after Weddington changed hands, Teri Austin, who lives four blocks from the facility, helped start a campaign to stop Harvard-Westlake’s proposed development. Everything about the River Park plan bothered her: the initial reduction of the tree canopy, the size, the noise, the traffic, the artificial turf, and even the buyer itself.
“This is a land grab by the one percent of the one percent. We’re furious about it,” says Austin, a co-founder of Save Weddington. She is particularly incensed that many Harvard-Westlake students, who would use the Valley facility, don’t live in the Valley. (The Valley-city divide in L.A. is a bit like the haves and the have-nots among millionaires.)
Harvard-Westlake sits at the top of the Los Angeles private school scene. With alums and trustees in the city’s corridors of power, the school’s development has become an easy target. Austin says two ethics complaints have been filed concerning city planning commissioners Caroline Choe and Samantha Millman, who attended Harvard-Westlake and voted for the project.
Austin insists the opposition’s efforts are not “anti-development.” Rather, she believes that River Park flouts the city’s zoning rules (local government has thus far disagreed).
While Save Weddington, which Austin claims has raised more than $70,000, has yet to live up to its name, the group has succeeded in delaying the project. The drawn-out process has included environmental impact reviews, community listening sessions, public hearings, a historical monument nomination, and now an appeal. Lost in the hubbub has been other neighbors’ support for the River Park project. Kelly DeMarco, who lives across from Weddington’s ninth hole, has been dismayed at her community’s campaign against Harvard-Westlake’s plans. “It’s actually embarrassing for me to see the resistance as strong as it has been over the years,” she says. “People just don’t like change.”
On November 14, the Los Angeles City Council denied Save Weddington’s appeal. Save Weddington is gearing up to sue the city in a last-ditch effort to stop the project.
Although the delayed timeline has frustrated supporters of the project, it has assisted the school’s fundraising efforts. “I suppose the only blessing in the amount of time that it has taken from purchasing the property to getting to a place where we have approval to break ground is that it has given us more time to raise the funds,” Commons says.
Harvard-Westlake isn’t the only private school expanding its footprint. As tuition has risen, families have become more discerning about the facilities schools offer, which has led to a real estate arms race, and Los Angeles schools like Brentwood School, the Archer School for Girls, and the Center for Early Education have all built new facilities in recent years. “If I’m paying $50,000 and I can get X,” says Bakal, the education consultant, “why would I pay the same amount of money for Y when it doesn’t even come close?”
This story appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
Andrew Zucker works at a production company in New York City. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Air Mail, among other publications.