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The cursed legacy of the most expensive plot of land in Los Angeles

Los Angeles

A GIANT vacant lot that sits atop Beverly Hills, known as both "The Mountain" and "The Vineyard", was finally sold this month after sitting on the market for a year - not for the billion dollars at which it was initially priced but for just US$100,000, in foreclosure, to a lone bidder.

It's an oddity in the Los Angeles real estate scene. Despite the fact that this city is in a housing crisis, with homelessness at record highs and home prices (and rent) far outpacing what the average Angeleno can afford, there are still plenty of billionaires around the world to whom this 63.5-hectare plot could have appealed.

The most expensive homes in the United States routinely sell here. But even when the property was slashed to a mere US$650 million, it still stayed on the market.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly looked at the place and called it overpriced, according to The Wall Street Journal. Still, it would undoubtedly be a perfect setting for a tech baron to build a dream Bond-villain home.

The plot's mountaintop land, flattened into a green padded grove, was advertised as "the highest peak in 90210", with glittering panoramic views and a helicopter pad (mandated by zoning law to aid in fighting fires). There is room for multiple properties on the site, but no one has ever built here.

It has been used as a luxury rental space. Singer Rihanna held the inaugural 2014 edition of her charity event, the Diamond Ball, on the land. But there has never been a house on the lot, despite the fact that ownership has changed hands several times between extremely wealthy people over the course of decades.

Movie stars including Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise have considered buying the property, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Actress Mitzi Gaynor and her producer husband, Jack Bean, owned part of the property in the 1970s. Later, so did Shams Pahlavi, the sister of the Shah of Iran.

In the 1980s, it was bought by Merv Griffin, who then sold it to Mark Hughes, who is best known for being the founder and CEO of Herbalife International, having started the health supplement multilevel-marketing scheme at age 24.

Mr Hughes spent many years battling the Food and Drug Administration and the state of California over his company's false medical advertising claims and was found dead in 2000 of an accidental fatal interaction between prescription pills and alcohol.

After his death, Mr Hughes' US$400 million estate was put in a trust for his son, now in his late 20s; the terms allowed him access at age 35.

Then, in 2004, after a confusing battle for trusteeship involving accusations of mismanaged funds, the Mark Hughes Trust entered into an arrangement with Chip Dickens, a real estate investor in Atlanta; the trust lent his firm US$45 million to sell the land.

But Mr Dickens couldn't sell it, even with the help of his partner Victorino Noval - a philanthropist who served time in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud in the late 1990s - and the debt owed to the Mark Hughes Trust ballooned to US$200 million.

In 2016, the property was transferred to a company managed by Mr Noval's son, which also failed to sell the land. The Hughes estate then forced the foreclosure auction, on Aug 20, and was the only bidder, offering US$100,000.

That seemingly bargain-basement price came with a condition: that the estate forgive the US$200 million loan. Any other buyer would have had to pay at least US$200 million at auction to cover the debt.

The Mark Hughes Trust did not respond to requests for comment on the future of the place.

The plot is remote. It sits at the top of a road off Benedict Canyon, the same canyon that branches into Cielo Drive, known for the house where followers of Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate and four others.

Like many mansions in the Los Angeles canyons, the Mountain feels eerily isolated, particularly because it dead-ends into its own private cul-de-sac, practically in the sky. Winding one's way up to the peak ends in confrontation with a fortresslike gate that conceals the property entirely from view.

The road is empty but covered in black tyre tracks from people doing doughnuts in their cars. There are security cameras and a call box, but the call box doesn't have any numbers or names in it. Dialling leads only to an unpleasant sound.

Aside from the occasional hot rod, you can hear only birds and the sound of the wind rustling through trees. It is very quiet. Below, Los Angeles looms, but the reality of any of the people living there is a world away. NYTIMES