The West Hollywood City Council agreed last night to send a proposal for a new development at 826 N. Kings Rd. back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration, a decision that hints at a shift in the newly installed Council’s approach to affordable housing and its awareness that its vote on the matter could have an impact on the hotly contested June 2 Council election.
The Council’s decision came after a group of local residents organized as United Neighbors for Responsible Development (UNRED) appealed a decision by the Planning Commission last October to approve the project. The developer, Demetri Darmos, proposes to construct a building with 34 apartments on a half-acre lot now occupied by a single house. The five-story building would include five units for low- and moderate-income people, a requirement under city law. While the size of the lot means only 25 apartments would ordinarily be permitted under the city zoning ordinance, the city and state laws that require the addition of affordable housing for a building of that size also allow a developer to increase the density of the building by 35 percent.
The UNRED group protested last night that the new project was too big for the area and that it would cause unacceptable increases in traffic on the street, make parking even more difficult and have an negative impact on the Schindler House, the building across the street designated as an historic treasure. It also said the project would have a negative impact on the Charlie Hotel, a house once occupied by Charlie Chaplin and converted into inn that sits behind the property. It does not have an official historic designation. The group also argued that the state drought emergency is reason not to permit new housing construction in West Hollywood and that the city does not need more affordable housing.
Detailed studies by the city’s Department of Community Development and traffic and other consultants hired by the developer refuted those contentions. The Community Development Department also noted that the project received the approval of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
The Council’s discussion of the appeal revealed a split on attitudes about affordable housing. Mayor Lindsey Horvath objected to the argument raised by neighbors of the project that there already were 106 affordable housing units nearby and that more weren’t needed. However Councilmember John D’Amico objected to including affordable housing on site, saying he wanted the building to be 25 percent smaller and that the developer would have to make a contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. “The affordable housing tale has been wagging the tail of the development dog in our city for too long,” he said. “Our city is too dense by half. We have 18,000 residents per square mile. It is too much. It is just too much.”
Councilmember John Duran noted in response to D’Amico that the city has always been that densely populated. Duran said he would prefer that the building be only four stories high to blend better with others on the street, but that he approved it overall. The five-story building would be similar in height to nine others on Kings Road.
The majority of the 90 residents who spoke before the Council on the project last night were opposed to it as were dozens of people who didn’t speak but listed themselves as being in opposition. The potential political impact of the opponents was evident in the appearance before the Council of Larry Block, Cole Ettman and Heidi Shink, candidates in the June 2 City Council election, who spoke against it. Shink, a member of the Planning Commission, voted in October to approve the project. She has said her change of opinion was sparked by the UNRED group’s argument that new construction will increase water usage during a time of drought. John Heilman, the former City Council member against whom the other three candidates are running, did not appear at the meeting.
The Council was rescued from making a difficult decision to possibly reject the appeal by a last minute decision by the developer to also ask that the proposal be returned to the Planning Commission. That is because of the possibility that he might be able to make a payment to the city’s affordable housing fund rather than include units for low- and moderate-income tenants. A 2009 decision by a state appellate court in what is called the Palmer case effectively invalidated the City of Los Angeles’ requirement that developers include housing for low- and moderate-income people in their projects. As a result cities are looking at other options including requiring a developer to make a payment that the city can use to fund such housing.