The City of West Hollywood has finally received plans for a proposed 1.35 million square foot residential and commercial development on the site of the MTA bus storage lot on Santa Monica Boulevard near San Vicente.
The plans for the project, proposed by Charles Cohen, owner of the Pacific Design Center (PDC), were not given to the city by the MTA, an owner of the property, or the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, whose West Hollywood Station is located there. Nor were they provided by Cohen, who last October assured the City Council that he wanted to work with West Hollywood in developing the plans. According to a memo prepared by Stephanie DeWolfe, the city’s community development director, the plans were passed along to the city by L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl whose 3rd District encompasses West Hollywood.
In her memo to the City Council, DeWolfe recommends that the city ask the MTA to let an agreement with Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation of California expire in April 2015. That agreement, signed in 2013, gives Cohen the exclusive right to negotiate with MTA for redevelopment of the property. Those negotiations have taken place privately without public input.
“A project of this scope and magnitude needs to be led by the City and its partner agencies of Metro and the County of Los Angeles,” DeWolfe says in her memo. “The process under by which such a significant publicly owned site is envisioned should be inclusive and transparent, and led by the community rather than the private sector.”
DeWolfe also recommends that that any future project on the 10.4-acre site include rail service. “The site is a prime location for a future multi-modal and Metro transit station, including light rail, subway and /or enhanced bus service,” she says.
City Manager Paul Arevalo said the MTA site is “a phenomenal governmental asset and a wonderful location.” But he echoed DeWolfe’s recommendation that city join the MTA and Los Angeles County in discussing a possible development of the site. Arevalo praised Cohen for having reached out to various city offices over time to discuss the MTA site. But he said those conversations “have been fragmented, meeting with one person at a time …. It’s a sincere effort, but the problem is (the project plans) may get out a bit ahead of the community and City Hall.”
The project drew a stronger reaction from Mayor John D’Amico, “That is an amateur rendering of a disaster,” D’Amico said. Reiterating a position he had taken earlier, D’Amico said: “It would be my position that any development of this size in that location would go before the voters and not the Council…If it is right it will pass and we will have it. And if it’s not right it will not pass and we will not have it.”
City Councilmember John Heilman also voiced his opposition to the proposed project. “The proposal that was given to the city regarding the MTA site is both unacceptable to the community and the city,” he said. “Giving one developer exclusive access to the site is extremely problematic and the priority for this site from a city and community perspective should be a re-imagination of the yard to significantly reducing the number of buses that receive regular maintenance here. This site should be a hub for transit users, pedestrian-oriented and reflect the character and heart of the city.”
Steve Afriat, a spokesman for Cohen Brothers Realty, noted that they already have staged one workshop to get public input on the project. “The process of proposing a project controlled by four government agencies is a very complex one,” he said. “The MTA, city, sheriff and county all have specific needs. With each conversation comes changing requirements, and so the proposal keeps changing.
“Much of the site is dedicated to government uses, and the additional private development will underwrite all these uses. The MTA has not allowed us to submit an application, which we would like to do, so we can start a formal process and study the proposal with public input.
“We have already had one community workshop where we invited all City residents. This site is too important to be judged as part of an election season debate, without accurate information. We embrace a process where all parties: the city, MTA, county, sheriff, and residents are at the table to see if we can work together to take this blighted site and make it special for all of West Hollywood.”
As conceived, the project, dubbed Design Village, would include 335 residential units plus 67 apartments for elderly or other people in need. It also would include a 250-room hotel, a 680-seat outdoor amphitheatre and a movie theatre. Other elements include night clubs and bars, restaurants with outdoor dining and 400,000 square feet of office space. The proposed Sheriff’s Station/City Hall would occupy 100,000 square feet. Fronting Santa Monica Boulevard would be the hotel and three tall office buildings (one housing City Hall), with helipads on their roofs. It also would include two underground MTA bus parking levels and a floor for bus washing and maintenance. All-in-all, it would be larger than other L.A. shopping centers such as The Grove or Americana at Brand in Glendale.
When Cohen’s plans were made public by WEHOville in February 2013 local residents expressed outrage at the size of the project, and City Council members said they were upset that he had negotiated an agreement with the MTA without notifying the city.
The MTA lot was originally the depot for the streetcar line owned by the Los Angeles Pacific Railway. After the streetcar was discontinued, the northern portion of the site was transferred to the MTA. The current lot was built in 1976 with space for 250 buses plus 275 cars in the parking deck immediately adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard. dThe southern portion of that lot was sold to create the Pacific Design Center. The Blue building opened in 1975, the Green building in 1988 and the Red building, which remains largely empty, opened in 2013. Cohen Brothers bought the PDC in 1999 for $165 million.
West Hollywood has had its eye on the MTA lot for years. Part of the city’s 2012-2014 budget included a $212,000 feasibility study for moving City Hall to that corner and incorporating a new Sheriff’s station into the new City Hall building.