In an unusual move on Tuesday, a subcommittee of the Los Angeles City Council declined to make a recommendation regarding designating the 56-year-old Lytton Savings building at 8150 Sunset Boulevard as a historic cultural monument, instead voting to let the full 15-member City Council make the decision.
The five-member Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee was scheduled to vote on the historic designation during its weekly meeting, but citing irregularities surrounding the historic designation hearing, Councilman Mitch Englander, a PLUM member, suggested the committee send it to the full council without a recommendation for action.
The Lytton Savings building sits on land approved for a massive retail and residential project on the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, just across the border of West Hollywood. In early November, the full Los Angeles City Council gave its unanimous approval to the project that will have 229 residential units, including 26 for very-low income residents and 12 for moderate-income residents. Owned by Townscape Partners, the project also includes 65,000 square feet of retail space for shops, restaurants and a supermarket. The project, with curved edges and odd angles, is by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the man who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
When Townscape Partners announced the project in 2013, the plan included demolition of the Lytton Savings building, which was designed by noted Southern California architect Kurt Meyer. Now a Chase Bank, the highly praised mid-century-modern building with its zig-zag folded plate roof, glass walls and interior art work offered a radical architectural departure from traditional bank buildings when it opened in 1960.
Preservationists petitioned to save the Lytton Savings building. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) also mentioned it was worthy of historic designation and included several alternatives for preserving rather than demolishing the building. In mid-September the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission unanimously agreed to grant it the landmark status. However, the full City Council must approve the designation before it becomes official.
At its Oct. 25 meeting, PLUM was originally scheduled to consider the historic designation at the same time it considered whether to recommend approval of the overall 8150 project. However, at the last minute, the historic designation was separated from project approval. City staffers told PLUM at the time that the historic designation did “not have any bearing on the approval of the project.”
The highly unusual move of approving a project before considering whether to grant historic status to one of the buildings on the site caused Councilman Englander to suggest at Tuesday’s meeting sending it to the full council for discussion without a recommendation on the landmark designation.
“It is very confusing,” said Englander. “I don’t recall since I’ve been a member of PLUM ever approving a project coming through PLUM, then council, then back here after the approval of the project for historic designation on the same project . . . It seems like that should have come first, but it didn’t. I still have a lot of questions that I would like to ask. I would like to do some additional research.”
The other PLUM members agreed with Englander, and the historic designation is tentatively set to go before the full council on Dec. 7. What will happen there is uncertain since the council rarely receives an item without a PLUM recommendation. Traditionally, PLUM and the full council defer to the wishes of the council member representing that district and Councilman David Ryu fully supports the historic designation.
Julia Duncan, a spokesperson for Ryu, told PLUM on Tuesday, “We encourage the owner of the property to work with due diligence and adhere to the options delineated in the EIR in respect to the preservation of the bank. There should be absolutely no issue with this designation. Preservation is not limited to integration. There are other alternatives that were fully evaluated in the EIR.”
Council rules require they take action on items within 75 days of receiving them, so the full council has until Dec. 14 to hear the item. If the full council fails to act by that time, the historic designation is automatically denied.
Townscape Partners had indicated they are not interested in keeping the Lytton Savings building on the 8150 property and that it will either be moved to another location or demolished.
Speaking during Tuesday’s PLUM hearing, Edgar Khalatian, a land use attorney representing Townscape, pointed out that the 8150 project has now been approved by the full council and that demolition was part of that approval. He urged denial of the historic designation so Townscape could bring in the wrecking ball.
“The designation would simply force the developer to spend the next year identifying appropriate mitigation measures for the bank,” Khalatian said. “It delays construction by up to 360 days. At the end of the day, consistent with the approved EIR, the building is going to be demolished or relocated . . . the building is not going to be there in 361 days.”
During public comment, several speakers cited the need to honor the city’s history and keep the building. Meanwhile, Karen Smalley, who lives near the project, criticized the backward approval process.
“It is completely inappropriate that the historic cultural designation is linked now with the demolition of the building and with Frank Gehry,” Smalley said. “It should be considered on its own merit, which it substantially has been proved to be worthy of.”
Adrian Scott Fine, who has attended many historic designation hearings in his capacity as the director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy preservation group, was also puzzled by the project’s approval prior to considering the historic designation.
“Not in my time have I seen this sort of out-of-sequencing happen,” Fine told WEHOville. “This wasn’t something that happened from the preservation side of it. This happened through the city process. It was entirely preventable in terms of putting the cart before the horse.”
Several public commenters who support demolition said the application for historic designation was merely a last ditch attempt to prevent the 8150 project from being built. Resident Jonathan Anderson called it “a Hail Mary play.” Several other speakers urged PLUM to deny the designation, citing the urgent need for the 38 units of affordable housing and also the desire to see Gehry’s designs materialize.
Meanwhile, Fine told PLUM, “Preservation and new development are not mutually exclusive,” while Keith Nakata of the Friends of Lytton Savings, the group which filed the historic designation application, said, “We believe a preservation-based solution is possible.”
Architect Frank Gehry indicated during the Oct 25 PLUM meeting that he was uninterested in adapting his futuristic designs to be more compatible with the mid-century modern Lytton Savings building and thus keep the building on the site. Gehry explained that demolition was necessary as the construction crane needed to erect the project’s two towers had to be placed in the location of the Lytton building.
During the Nov. 1 full city council meeting, Gehry stated that he had no remorse about demolishing another noted architect’s celebrated work, adding that some of his buildings had been demolished over the years. Gehry specifically cited Santa Monica Place, a three-level enclosed shopping mall he designed in 1980 in Santa Monica, as one that had been demolished. The 87-year-old Gehry was incorrect with that statement, as that mall still stands. However, in 2010, Santa Monica Place was renovated and the roof removed to make it an open-air shopping mall.
A spokesperson for Townscape did not respond to requests for comment about the PLUM decision not to make a decision.
Steven Luftman, co-founder of Friends of Lytton Savings, was pleased that PLUM failed to make a recommendation. “This is the best we could hope for,” Luftman told WEHOville. “It seems like they are taking it seriously. I think their considering it further is a good thing.”
When Gehry’s designs for the 8150 Sunset site were first unveiled, one of the buildings was 234 feet tall, a height that caused outcry from residents living nearby. Councilman Ryu and the City of West Hollywood were able to negotiate that height down to 178 feet prior to the full Los Angeles City Council giving its approval.
West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister and Community Development Director Stephanie DeWolfe were also able to get Townscape to agree to a 10-foot setback for the top floor of that building on its southern side (which faces West Hollywood) so it will appear less tall and to move mechanical equipment such as air conditioning compressors away from the WeHo border. Additionally, Townscape agreed to give West Hollywood $2 million for traffic improvements and $500,000 for sewer improvements since the 8150 project will connect to West Hollywood’s sewers. Ryu’s office also persuaded Townscape to pay Los Angeles an additional $2 million for traffic improvements in the area.