A Look at Charles Cohen’s Plans for the MTA Lot in West Hollywood

charles cohen, mta, santa monica boulevard
Rendering of proposed Design Village on Santa Monica Boulevard with hotel (on left) and office buildings. (Gruen Associates)

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.

mta, charles cohen, pdc, pacific design center
A rendering of the City Hall/Sheriff’s Station building adjacent to the PDC Red building as seen from San Vicente Boulevard (Gruen Associates)
MTA, PDC, Charles Cohen
A rendering of a “grand staircase” at the Design Village as seen from Santa Monica Boulevard (Gruen Associates)

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Jonathan Simmons
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Jonathan Simmons

Based on the timing of the announcement of this Feasibility Study, and it’s cost, and the results that someone said looked like a cartoon … it appears to me that is could be a means to make a pay-off to someone from the city for a favor. The plan was clearly never intended. $212,000 Hmm … based on my own history on how these things are done in other areas, it was probably $12,000 for some lackey who had to put this “cartoon” looking study, concluding “NO” and $200,000 in a hidden pay off to someone who was promised it… Read more »

ambiguousbodywork
Guest

Looks like a cartoon rendering. If it isn’t and someone actually thinks that type of architecture would enhance WH they are nuts!

ambiguousbodywork
Guest

This is a joke, right?

tom
Guest
tom

i have several issues. one, there isn’t much competition. there are some restaurants and fast food that doesn’t exist in our neighborhood. that which is is always the same stuff. second, i wish city hall would make a firm purpose of amendment to really enforce the leash law and picking up after their animals. so some owners, it doesn’t mean a thing — they don’t take responsibility. call the sheriff? they do nothing but refer you to the animal control which is in carson. it would take hours for them to appear, and by the time, the perpetrator is already… Read more »

Ted Franks
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Ted Franks

Those new clear glass towers look drab compared to the bright red, green, and blue towers of the PDC. They should complement the PDC better.

mike dunn
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mike dunn

For those who advocate the MTA moving permanently to another location exactly where would you put it on the Westside? It has stayed at that location for over a hundred years for a reason. Should we knock down UCLA, Veterans Hospital, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, maybe Century City. Buses are here to stay. My opinion why Cohen wants the property is he built the Red Building to close to the north property line and service access to the building is either nonexistent or very limited. During construction the MTA allowed the contractor to access the property via the MTA yard. That… Read more »

SaveWeho
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SaveWeho

I dont understand why everything has to be so tall with skyscrapers. I’m in favor of development. I actually think the entire MTA should be relocated to another area. (Its a safety concern, unsightly and our city is too tight). But why cant we have proper growth? Lets keep our village and use this unsightly concrete corner and put small storefronts to mimic a village. Pasadena and Santa Barbara did it successfully. Create passageways and alleys for storefronts and shops instead of this huge NYC city center corner…create a plaza instead! This corner will be the stepping stone to what… Read more »

Steve Martin
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Steve Martin

That’s right; everyone at City Hall denied any knowledge of the deal even though Charles Cohen was represented by super-lobbyist Steve Afriat, who ran the re-election campaigns of John Duran and Jeff Prang. This would be one largest mega development in West Hollywood’s history but no one talked to anyone at City Hall?? How do you explain that Afriat represented at a neighborhood meeting that City Hall would be a 12 story tower near San Vicente? Nice to know Afriat makes those kinds of decisions himself, supposedly without any City Council input. This project, as presented, would put Santa Monica… Read more »

Riley
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Riley

@Chris Sanger…actually the “present city gov’t said they didn’t even know about the exclusive deal made between Cohen and MTA. I hear they just bought some swamp land, too.

Chris Sanger
Guest
Chris Sanger

The headline for the article on this at Curbside LA is ” Here’s the PDC Megaproject That West Hollywood Wants to Cancel Now” and describes and refers to the city gov’t being very negative about this. Not surprising – the present gov’t has been quite wary of many projects, despite the attempts of some here to suggest they are rubber stamps.

RickT
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RickT

I would want a very cool looking City Hall. Something that will make a Statement like Beverly Hills City Hall does, It needs to be powerful and timeless.

Todd Bianco
Guest

@Jan Michael Foster – I couldn’t agree more. While this parcel screams out for redevelopment, this massive over-development would do extensive damage to the gay community. If all the low-rise, older buildings that make up the majority of Santa Monica Blvd disappear, so will the bars, shops and restaurants that form the core of “Boystown.” I don’t think we have any hope for a Pink Line subway in my lifetime, but we should make that location a mass transit hub of some sort. It should be planned that way from the start, not etched in some years down the road.… Read more »