In a three-to-two vote the West Hollywood City Council last night agreed to let the controversial redevelopment of the 8899 Beverly Blvd. building move forward.
Council members John D’Amico and Lauren Meister voted against the project. It was supported by Council members John Duran and John Heilman and Mayor Lindsey Horvath.
The approval is conditioned on the developer’s agreement not to let any of the units be used for short-term rentals or as corporate apartments. They also will be required to hold a public meeting to review with local residents the design for the north-facing side of the building, which faces a neighborhood of single-family homes. The developer must apply for and receive a building permit within 18 months. And the $4.25 million the developer agreed to give to the city in exchange for the exemption to the existing zoning ordinance and General Plan must be used for actual public benefits, not subsidizing the building’s Madeo restaurant while the building is under construction, for which the developer had proposed to spend more than $1 million. Finally, the nine houses that the developer proposes to build on Rosewood Drive behind the building must meet the design standards of the renovated 8899 Beverly building.
The project involves converting the office building between Robertson and Almont into 52 condominiums and 15 apartments for low- and moderate-income people. The proposal has been controversial because it would almost double the size of the existing 90,000-square-foot building and change the use of a building that already doesn’t conform with the city’s General Plan or the zoning for the site. The project also includes construction of nine single-family houses behind the building.
The 10-story building was constructed in 1962, 22 years before West Hollywood was incorporated as a city. Because of its size the building didn’t comply with the city’s General Plan when it was adopted in 2011 or the zoning for the area, which limits commercial buildings in the area to three stories and a smaller mass on the 1.7 acre lot. Thus the developer has to request an exception that in the form of a “special plan” that applies different zoning standards that those used for surrounding buildings.
Councilmember John Heilman acknowledged that the project doesn’t conform with the General Plan or the zoning ordinance, But, Heilman said, “there are a lot of things about this project that enhance the community and benefit the residents.” Because it will be converted from office to residential use, “it actually decreases parking demand, it decreases traffic generation, even with the increased size of the building. It decreases the impact of the building.” Heilman also praised the addition of housing for low-income people.
Heilman, along with Councilmember Duran, said that a smaller alternative doesn’t seem to be financially feasible for the developer. Duran said the condominiums likely would appeal to affluent young professionals moving into West Hollywood. While she voted for the project, Mayor Horvath said she was concerned that the public benefits proposed by the developer might not be what the community really wants, noting that traffic calming and dealing with increased water rates might be issues to focus on.
Councilmember Meister arguing strongly against the project. “We are taking a non-conforming building, and we’re making it even more non-conforming,” she said. Meister also said the project doesn’t meet state requirements that specific exemptions to a city’s General Plan must be consistent with the General Plan. And she said the cash the developer proposes to pay the city for the exemption “is sending the wrong message: ‘You can buy a specific plan’.”
Councilmember D’Amico echoed her concerns. “We now know that for the price of three condos and an election, you can buy a specific plan,” he said, referring to the estimated average value of $1 million for each of the condos and the $3 million Townscape Partners, the developer, is offering as a bonus separate from its proposed subsidy for Madeo and a $1 million contribution to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. “… We know that these people invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the makeup of this Council, ” he said. Townscape and its managing partners were among the largest contributors in recent City Council elections, giving money not only to individual candidates but to independent campaign expenditure committees that supported John Heilman and to an unsuccessful campaign to fight a limit on City Council members terms.
The developer is a partnership between Townscape, a Beverly Hills real estate development firm, and Angelo Gordon & Co. of New York City. They purchased the building and its accompanying parking lot in July 2012, for $38.5 million. Townscape first applied for a special exception to the city’s General Plan and zoning ordinance in December 2012. The project quickly drew opposition from residents of West Hollywood West, a neighborhood composed largely of single-family homes that sits just to the north of the project. Those residents objected to what they saw as potential traffic and parking issues and to Townscape’s plans then to build 13 townhouses and a recreation center with a pool and apartments for low-income people on the parking lot behind the 8899 Beverly Blvd. That parking lot fronts on Rosewood Avenue, where the neighborhood of single-family homes begins, and residents argued that the buildings didn’t conform with the look of the neighborhood.
At its meeting in August 2014, the city’s Planning Commission rejected a revised proposal by Townscape that replaced the townhouses with single-family homes and backed away from a controversial plan to deny low-income tenants access to the swimming pool, which some of them would have been able to view from their apartments.
Townscape appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the City Council. In its appeal it offered a package of almost $3.5 million in public benefits, which the Council is allowed to consider. They included construction of a small park on Bonner Drive near the intersection of Robertson and Beverly boulevards (valued at $1 million), contributing $2 million to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, spending $250,000 to improve landscaping along Beverly Boulevard and Rosewood Avenue, donating $100,000 to the city’s Urban Arts program, contributing $32,000 in membership dues to the West Hollywood West Neighborhood Association. Townscape said it also would spend $1.25 million to renovate Madeo, the restaurant now located in the building, with that expense including compensating the owners for lost business while the restaurant is closed and paying Madeo employees during that time.
But the Council in September 2014 asked the city’s planning staff to work with Townscape to try to reduce the size of the proposed project and to analyze the benefit to the city of the extras that Townscape was offering.