Equestrian corner of Atwater resists housing development

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Clients riding in an equestrian arena at the Children’s Ranch in north Atwater

Tucked away from the traffic, shops and restaurants of Atwater Village, where the Griffith Park hills meet flat housing tracts, people in Los Angeles still keep horses.

Gaby Valner, 22, has been coming to The Children’s Ranch in North Atwater for five years. She has Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder, and speaks through a computer.

“I have issues with balance and my body gets stuck a lot and I end up staring at the ground,” she said, sitting in a patio at the ranch and touching each letter on her computer with her index finger. “But up in the saddle I can have my head up and not be overwhelmed by the sensory input. I am incredibly grateful for this place.”

Gaby is one of about 85 children and youth with autism, epilepsy, and physical and developmental disabilities who come to the ranch every month for therapy. Riding is paired with games to improve clients’ communication skills. Caring for horses is soothing for the young clients, as they learn that in order for a horse to be calm, they must be too.

A young client outside the Children's Ranch
A young client outside the Children’s Ranch (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But the founder and owner of The Children’s Ranch fears that a proposed housing development may end her clients’ access to equestrian therapy. The owner of two properties behind the ranch plans to build a 60-unit housing development, the first of its kind in the immediate area. Now, a warehouse and a vacant lot occupy the site, separated by a city-owned riding ring from the ranch.

Speaking at a recent neighborhood council meeting, The Children’s Ranch owner Jackie Sloan insists that more traffic and people near the riding trails will make riding impossible.

“I don’t think any of us can fathom 60 homes,” Sloan said. “We’re going to be gone. There’s a reason that an equestrian trail needs some protection zone around it or it’s not usable. You can’t ride your horse 20 feet from 60 people having an activity.”

Clients from the ranch ride on a trail along the L.A. River
Children from the ranch ride on a trail along the L.A. River (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sloan is not the only one worried about the co-existence of ranches and many new homes. Atwater residents have collected about 600 signed petitions to send to the city protesting the development. Many of her neighbors keep horses too, while others just appreciate living in a rare, equestrian corner of the city.

“We are not anti-development,” explained Alex Ventura, an Atwater homeowner, after a neighborhood council meeting. “It could be 20 lovely homes, it could be 17 equestrian properties. It can be a lot of other residential properties that would fit in the feel of the community.”

Daniel Tellalian, the director of an economic development consulting firm and the representative of the project, believes that the housing development should have a positive impact on the neighborhood by removing industrial traffic from the area.

“Our intent very much for this project is to in no way impact the existing equestrian uses in this area which we think are part of the charm and fabric of the neighborhood, and if anything to try to make them more special,” he said.

All along the L.A. River, neighborhoods from Atwater Village to Frogtown are confronting pressure to add housing. Residents worry that their quiet corners of the city will be turned into crowded, upscale high-traffic neighborhoods.

However, Tellalian recognized that the neighborhood is changing.

“There might even be a part of Atwater residents who probably would like to turn the clock 20 years or 40 years into the time when Atwater really was a village in that area, and we’d probably disagree a bit on that point,” he said. “We’re looking a little bit towards the future.”

Inside The Children's Ranch
Inside The Children’s Ranch (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Some Atwater residents fear that if the development is approved it will encourage other developers to create similar housing projects here.

“They can do the same thing in this area and that will ruin the pocket of equine community that we have which is historical,” said Kelly Blanpied, who lives next door to the ranch. “It’s an oasis. It’s all horses, right there on the river, and very few people know that.”

This isn’t the first time that the community has fought off development. Elaine Brock, who owns the San Rafael Hunt Club across the street from The Children’s Ranch, recalls how a zoning change in the 80s was denied after residents rode their horses to city hall for the public hearing. She says they might have to do it again.

“It’s just fight, fight, fight,” Brock. “It’s our quality of life. Not only the horses but the quality of life in Atwater village.”

The City Planning Department is studying the issue now, and public hearings will be scheduled in the next few months.