The West Hollywood City Council last night rejected an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of a new 34-unit apartment buildingt at 8017-8029 Norton Ave.
The council’s decision came in a 4-to-1 vote, with Councilmember Lauren Meister opposing the project, saying she didn’t think the design of the four- and five-story building fit with the neighborhood.
The vote was a defeat for a group of anti-development activists who also have worked to try to stop new multi-unit housing projects on Kings Road and elsewhere.
Victor Omelczenko, who made the appeal, argued that the city didn’t properly investigate the impact the project would have on traffic, that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) might not be able to provide water to the building given the state drought, that the building was too tall and that the building would have a negative impact on the look of the neighborhood with its bungalow houses. Omelczenko also said that the developer, Empire Properties, was violating the state Ellis Act by evicting tenants in existing buildings on the property and then building new apartments.
Edward Levin, the architect for the project, refuted Omelczenko’s arguments, as did a report from the city’s Department of Community Development. That report noted that a traffic study done by an Empire consultant and reviewed by a city consultant found that the project would generate only four additional morning rush hour and five additional evening rush hour trips, which would minimal impacts on potentially nearby intersections of Norton Avenue with Crescent Heights Boulevard and Laurel Avenue. The city staff report also noted that the LADWP will provide water to the building. The report also notes that none of the nearby buildings on Norton have been designated as cultural or historic resources and thus that designation won’t be affected by constructing a building with a modern design.
The city report notes that state law requires the city to offer developers concessions in certain circumstances. In the case of the Empire Norton building, the city granted permission to add an extra story in exchange for Empire’s including five apartments with rents affordable for low- or moderate-income people.
Mike Jenkins, the city’s attorney, disputed Omelczenko’s claim that Empire violated the Ellis Act by removing tenants so that it could replace the apartment building. The Ellis Act, Jenkins said, only provides restrictions on landlords who want to evict tenants for a different use of the same building, not for construction of a new one.
Perhaps the most heated debate was over whether the city should allow the developer to demolish the existing five buildings on three adjacent lots, which would remove 21 apartments whose rent increases are governed by West Hollywood’s rent stabilization law.
Levin told the council that the three existing buildings in effect had only five units whose tenants actually had low rents. They are occupied by rents who were in place before the passage of a state law that allows landlords to increase the rent of rent-stabilized units to whatever the market will bear when the unit becomes available. Levin said several of the other units were dilapidated and unoccupied. He and Craig Berberian, head of Empire Properties, argued that the project would replace five currently affordable units whose rent can be raised if they become empty with five units whose rent will be set by city guidelines for low- and moderate-income people.
In a hearing before the Planning Commission in September, anti-development activists who previously had argued that the city doesn’t need more affordable housing shifted their position to say that the city does need more affordable housing but that it should be paid for by “in lieu” fees from developers rather than requiring them to add affordable units to their projects. That argument was made again last night by Cythia Blatt, founder of UNRED, an organization that campaigned to block construction of a 25-unit building at 826 N. Kings Rd, and several other opponents of the project.
Councilmember John D’Amico voted for the project, saying that it met all of the city’s planning and zoning standards. But D’Amico criticized those standards. “We made it happen,” he said in a reference to earlier councils’ approval of increases in the height of buildings in exchange for a developer adding low income units to it.
“We designed these buildings to be overly large and overly abusive to the neighborhood they exist in,” D’Amico said.
Meister said the design reminded her of the “big box” houses that her Westside neighborhood had fought. “This is a big box,” she said. “I just don’t think that the project is aesthetically fitting into the neighborhood. For that reason most of all I cannot support the project.”
However Councilmember John Heilman said that beauty of Norton was being exaggerated. “There are some beautiful buildings on Norton and some that aren’t so beautiful,” he said. Heilman said he was concerned about the loss of affordable units now on the site but noted that the city can’t force the developer to keep them