Planning Commission Approves Two Condo Projects, Endorses Speeding Up Approval Process


West Hollywood’s Planning Commission approved an apartment building on Norton Avenue, a condominium building on Formosa Avenue and also took initial steps to make it quicker and easier for developers to get approval for projects during its Thursday night meeting.

The commission unanimously approved a three-story, eight-unit apartment building with underground parking at 8116 Norton Ave., just west of Crescent Heights Boulevard. It will replace a large, two-story house and back building that make up a total of four units on the lot currently.

Illustration of 8116 Norton Ave. (Aero Collective)

Architect Brion Moran of the Inglewood-based Aero Collective told the commission that even though the lot is deep and narrow (50 feet wide by 150 feet deep), his contemporary design will have all eight units opening off of a center courtyard.

The commissioners liked the design and felt it fit the lot well. Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner especially liked that the project included the courtyard, calling it, “a modern version of some of our historical buildings.”
During the public comment period, neighbors living on either side of the project expressed concern the about loss of light in their units since the project will only have six-foot setbacks from the side property lines. Moran explained that he intended to use lighter colors on the building exteriors to minimize the feeling of a dark alley between the buildings.

The two neighbors, John Renfield and Deborah Freeman, also lamented the loss of old trees on site. Although removal of the trees is unavoidable while digging the underground garage, the site owner, Ilan Douek, a manager with LA-based Drexel Construction Management LLC, intends to replace them with mature trees, including a large tree in the center courtyard.

Illustration of 1227 N. Formosa project (AKA Architecture Design)

1227 N. Formosa Ave.


On a 6-1 vote, the commission approved a contemporary style, three-story, five-unit condominium building with a ground-level parking garage at 1227 N. Formosa Ave., south of Fountain Avenue. It will replace a single-family home with a detached one-story dwelling unit that are currently on the site.

Architect Andrea Keller of Los Angeles-based AKA Architecture Design explained that while each unit will have rooftop decks, they will also have 30-inch-deep “Juliet balconies,” just big enough so someone can walk to the railing, but not big enough for tables and chairs.

During the public comment period, several neighbors expressed concern about privacy as the new building will overlook their backyards. Owner/developer JMC Formosa Properties said it will add hedges all around to help with privacy.
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner voted against the project, concerned about the way the parking garage was handled. She wondered why they were not using underground parking to allow for first floor units, thereby increasing the number of units in the building. Commissioner John Altschul pointed out that even though they could have gotten more units on the property, there is still an overall net gain of units.

Hoopingarner also disliked the arrangement of the parking garage, pointing out that the required guest parking space is not in a covered spot and thus is exposed to the open sky. While one part of the city’s zoning code requires guest parking spaces to be covered, another part allows them to be exposed. City ordinances say that when two parts of the code contradict one another, the lesser requirement prevails.

The building’s parking garage will be especially tight. That guest parking spot will be on a rotating turntable since backing out would be difficult. In additional, while each unit is required to have two parking spaces, to meet that requirement for all five units one of the units will have to use a mechanical lift to raise one vehicle above the other. While mechanical lifts are sometimes used for parking in office and commercial buildings, they are rarely seen in small residential buildings.

Faster, Easier Development Process

The commission also offered feedback on proposals to change the zoning code to make it easier and faster for some developments to get approved.

Since 2009, in an effort to boost the number of residential units being built, the city has required lots zoned for apartments or condominiums to be built to at least 90% of the lot capacity. That means a lot which could have up to ten units must build at least nine of those units.

However, some lots are odd shaped and can’t realistically achieve that 90% capacity. Also, some developers don’t want to build to that 90% capacity.

“I feel like the 90% requirement ties people’s hands,” said Commissioner David Aghaei, noting the odd-size lots can make the 90% unfeasible.

Commissioner Stacy Jones agreed, saying, “We don’t want people to have to ask for a variance to do less.”

The commission approved a recommendation that eliminates the 90% requirement and changes it to read there is “no net loss” of residential units. That means a developer cannot tear down an eight-unit apartment building and replace it with a four-unit condominium building; the developer would have to build at least eight units to replace the eight eliminated.

Another part of the recommendation speeds the approval process for smaller projects by allowing city staffers to approve smaller residential buildings without going before the Planning Commission.

Currently, city staff can approve plans for residential buildings in the R4 zone of eight units or less (nine if one of the units is designated for lower-income residents). Anything larger goes to the Planning Commission for review.
While city staff recommended increasing the number they can approve to 12 units, the commission worried about transparency, noting how important it for the public to be able to come before the Planning Commission to air their concerns.

“We [the Planning Commission] give that forum for venting, for airing, and for education,” said Commissioner John Altschul.

Ultimately, the commission agreed that a streamlined approval process was good for smaller buildings and decided city staff could approve buildings of ten units or less. Anything with 11 units or more would need approval of the Planning Commission.

The commission also discussed the concessions which the state requires cities to offer developers if they include units for lower-income residents in new buildings.

Under state law SB-1818, developers can select from a number of options including reduced setbacks from the property line or slightly reduced balcony sizes, but generally choose to add ten feet in height for an extra floor (and thus more units).

City staff recommended moving the extra-ten-feet-height option to a different place in the menu of concessions where it was less obvious, in hopes of subtly encouraging developers to select other concessions.

However, the commissioners felt that idea would not work since the extra floor is the most lucrative to developers and experienced developers already know the ten-feet option is available to them.

In the end, the commission agreed to keep the height bonus on the main menu of options but move it lower down the menu.

These recommendations for zone text amendments now go to the City Council for approval, likely early in 2018.
During the public comment period, resident Ed Levin, an architect who has worked extensively on issues concerning SB-1818, said a zone text amendment would not achieve the desired result as far as height was concerned. He believed the city’s General Plan, which guides development in the city, would need to be amended.

“Under state density bonus law, height and density are linked,” said Levin. “It’s very difficult to do this without dealing with the General Plan. We need to address this as a General Plan amendment, not simply as a zone text amendment. It won’t work.”

As a result of Levin’s comments, the commission decided it should hold a study session to educate itself on all the particulars of SB-1818.

The commission, at a future meeting, will also review how the public is notified of new projects being proposed in their neighborhoods.

Illustration of 541 Norwich Drive (Schmidt Architecture)

541 Norwich Drive

Finally, the commission unanimously approved a variance for a front-yard setback (distance from property line to the building) for a new single-family home proposed for 541 Norwich Drive, south of Melrose Avenue. City ordinances say front setbacks must be an average of those of the surrounding homes. The house immediately to the north has a 20-foot setback, but the house to the south has a 76-foot front setback. Without the variance, the 541 Norwich house would be forced to have a 47-foot setback. By granting the variance, the commission allowed the owner to have a 20-foot setback. The average setback for the entire block is 19 feet.

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6 years ago

They need a study session on the State Density Bonus Law. 3 of the 7 commissioners are lawyers. If they keep acting “willfully blind” to the law and refusing to ignore the mandates of the state they should be disbarred.

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