Ilene Waterstone, actor-comedian Steve Martin's personal assistant, moved into a tower at the Park La Brea Apartments on April Fools' Day in 1992. She wasn't sure what to expect. "I used to think of Park La Brea as being the old people's complex," she recalls.
It wasn't long before she fell in love with it. The grounds were lush and well-maintained, her neighbors respectful and neat. Then about two years ago, things went to hell.
Elevators in her high-rise building repeatedly broke down, forcing Waterstone, 64 and saddled with chronic orthopedic problems, to trudge up and down floor after floor in a dimly lit stairwell to her eighth-floor apartment. She once made the climb wet and embarrassed after coming home from a water aerobics class to yet another grounded elevator.
Rats and cockroaches infested what she says was an increasingly filthy building. Water leaked from her roof. New tenants partied late into the night.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's overpriced projects now," she tells L.A. Weekly. "The motto of Park La Brea at this point should be, 'We don't give a shit.'"
The Park La Brea Apartments, a community for aging artists and younger professionals, has more than 4,200 units spread over 160 acres of prime Fairfax District land. With 11,000 residents, it's the largest housing development west of the Mississippi. But it recently has been troubled by elevator breakdowns, dated and dangerous fire equipment and pest infestations befitting a cheap motel.
In 2013, media reports said the L.A. Fire Department was called more than 40 times to rescue tenants trapped in elevators. That year a city inspection revealed faulty fire-fighting equipment in one residential tower where a fire had broken out.
Residents United at Park La Brea, a tenant advocacy group, organized a meeting of 200 people in October 2013 to address elevator malfunctions in the towers, which left elderly and disabled residents unable to reach or leave their units — too frail to attempt the stairwell.
LAFD and city housing officials, City Councilman Tom LaBonge's aide Carolyn Ramsey and a renters-rights activist from the Coalition for Economic Survival spoke.
Building management did not.
Prime Group, the owner of Park La Brea, which has more than $4 billion in national real estate assets, did not respond to several calls and emails. The Weekly reached the resident services manager, longtime employee John Burney, who says things have changed.
While Burney pointed to improved roach control and handling of urgent calls, he also described a seven-year ordeal to modernize the elevators. That work, the source of extensive anger, won't be complete until the end of this year.
Waterstone wanted out. In 2014, she says, her attorney asked management to give her an early escape from her lease, citing her orthopedic health issues. The management agreed — if she promised not to sue them. She consented.
"I can't fight with them, which I think is what they count on," she says. Last October, a month after she left, she had hip-replacement surgery and was glad to be rid of the towering staircase at Park La Brea. Then she got a call from a collection agency. She hadn't tied up some loose ends, such as repainting her unit white, and Park La Brea had charged her $677, adding a bitter coda to a spoiled relationship.
She felt relief rather than anger after paying Park La Brea her $500 security deposit plus $177. She had painted her unit a color other than white more than a decade ago, then lived there so long that her unit was never modernized. She says the owners probably intended to update and repaint no matter what, yet pressed her for her deposit anyway. (Management did not respond to the Weekly's query about this.)
The Park La Brea Apartments, which has its own Wikipedia page, receives overwhelmingly negative online reviews, yet there's a never-ending waiting list. The grounds, after all, are just downwind of the Grove, walking distance to the Original Farmers Market and art museums. Residents can take advantage of posh cafes, pools and spas. There's even a regular comedy show in an on-site private theater.
Cockroaches, somehow, don't make it into the brochure.
Hannah Park says she came home last summer to hundreds of cockroaches crawling over her kitchen — even falling from her ceiling. She stood paralyzed. "I just had this Raid in my hand," she recalls.
She says the roaches had invaded after a utility closet beneath her apartment was fumigated, driving them upstairs. She says management fumigated only part of her unit a month after the infestation, then never performed follow-up treatment.
Her attempts to get management to finish the job dragged on for months, she says, as the maintenance people repeatedly showed up when she was out or arrived unannounced, when she could not let them in.
Maintenance calls at Park La Brea are fielded by a third party, so when Park finally got someone on the phone, she explains, "They don't know Park La Brea, so they can't answer [your] questions."
She fled to a motel. She says the landlord agreed to let her out of her lease early. Park considered seeking reimbursement for rent she paid for a roach-infested apartment, but, she says, got resistance from management. "At that point, I just wanted to get the [hell] out of there," she says.
Jon Neustadter, who has lived in a tower unit for 21 years, credits management with some good moves in response to the anger. He says it has made propertywide improvements since 2013, including cleaning basements and speeding up challenging work on elevators that date to the 1940s.
Despite all this, he says, the building managers too often give tenants information that's inaccurate or slow — or don't communicate at all.
In one nerve-racking example of this some weeks ago, an armed burglary suspect snuck into a residential tower at the complex. Prasanthi Durvasula, who lives in a different tower, says she didn't get an email from management until four hours after the alleged gunman had entered the grounds. She says some residents learned about him from relatives or breaking-news reports.
Burney, the resident services manager, notes that a call center was set up within the last year — a good idea if you've got 11,000 residents. As Burney, a 25-year employee, now describes it, "Every resident call made to our office is answered by a live person 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
And he points to a dedicated on-site elevator mechanic — Park La Brea "is his only stop" — who makes daily rounds. He says pest issues sometimes arise when residents leave trash on their patios or near, but not inside, the dumpsters, and that his team of pest experts knows the issues with each building — and each tenant.
The problem, Burney implies, is clear: "We know what neighbor to go look at."
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Yet the angry complaints continue. Matt, a resident in Tower 34, who didn't want his last name used, says he returned from a hospital stay last fall to find both elevators in Tower 34 shut down.
He says management told him he could apply for possible reimbursement for a hotel stay, but he didn't think they would follow through after a series of communication breakdowns and ignored service requests. He ended up staying at a friend's.
If Matt should decide to move out when his lease ends, he gets to reserve an elevator. He's dreading move-out day.
"I've seen them schedule people for move-in and move-out when both elevators are down," he says. "They have no problem inconveniencing people."