Palm Avenue Project Sparks Allegations of Conflict of Interest and ‘Procedural Irregularities’

    A view of the 927-931 Palm Avenue project (Illustration by Levin-Morris Architects)

West Hollywood’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on Monday will review a proposal for a project on Palm Avenue whose architect is a member of that same commission.

The fact that Ed Levin, a partner in Levin-Morris Architects who was appointed to the HPC in 2005, is working on the project has angered some of its neighbors and those who will be evicted because of it. Levin will have to recuse himself from a vote on the project, but neighbors assert that his close relationship with other commission members will have an impact on their perception of it. The project also is opposed by the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance.

The project that Levin has designed for Westwood Property Ventures, a part of Jeffrey Damavandi’s Dylan Investments, consists of a four-story, L-shaped building with an underground parking garage that will house seniors and resources for them including a hair salon and recreation space. The proposed project is going before the HPC because it will wrap around and incorporate two existing houses designated by the city as culturally significant parts of the Old Sherman Thematic Group. One of the houses, at 927 Palm, will serve as an administrative and reception area for the building. The bungalow at 931 Palm will be a stand-alone residence. With the 931 Palm bungalow, the project will have 49 units.

Palm Avenue project looking east from Betty Way (Illustration by Levin-Morris Architects)

The project, however, also will require demolition of three housing units at 923 Palm Ave. that the city has found not to be culturally or historically significant and of a detached unit behind 931 Palm. All-in-all, four residential units will be demolished and two incorporated into the project.

The project site is on the west side of Palm Avenue, bounded at the south by a multi-story building at the corner of both Palm Avenue and Cynthia Street, at the north by residential properties that continue to Harratt Street, to the west by properties on Betty Way and an adjacent residential property that fronts on Larrabee Street.

WHAP has expressed concern about the height and design of the L-shaped building. In a letter to the HPC, it says that guidelines based on federal standards for rehabbing culturally significant buildings say that “new construction needs to be built in a manner that protects the integrity of the historic building(s) and the property’s setting. As with new additions, the massing, size, scale, and architectural features of new construction on the site of a historic building must be compatible with those of the historic building. When visible and in close proximity to historic buildings, the new construction must be subordinate to these buildings.”

“A massive wall will loom over the historic sites,” says the WHPA letter. “The buildings behind the development on the cul-de-sac Betty Way are given a ‘backdrop’ of a row of trees. WHPA believes designated properties should receive equal or more consideration. Even though the proposed structure has ‘green’ walls, this does not diminish the massiveness of the four-story building.”

The multi-story project also has drawn opposition from residents behind it on Betty Way, which is the only street in West Hollywood zoned solely for one-story homes.

WHPA also has questioned the city’s transparency in dealing with the project. It notes that on March 26, 2013, the HPC approved designating the buildings and sites at 927 and 931 Palm as cultural resources. But then on July 15, 2013, the City Council adopted a resolution that designated only the exteriors of the buildings as local cultural resources, “leaving the possibility that the Council’s resolution does not cover the garages and additions at the rear of the historic sites.”

The resolution passed by the City Council on that date says it considered the HPC’s recommendation and “took testimony from interested parties.” However, WHAP says the agenda for that date posted on the city’s website doesn’t indicate that a public hearing on the project.

The project is what is called a “congregate senior care” building, which means that while each of the residents will have his or her own bedroom and bathroom, they will share common dining and recreation space as well as a laundry room and hair salon. Each of the 48 units in the main building will contain 404 square feet.

The developer is seeking several concessions to the city zoning code governing the property. One is a reduction to 25 from the 29 parking spaces typically required for a senior-care building with that many units. City zoning laws permit reductions in parking spaces for senior residential projects with an onsite drug store and a hair salon for residents only and for those within 750 feet of a transit stop. The Palm project is less than 400 feet from a CityLine shuttle stop at 959 Palm Ave.

The developer also is seeking an increase in the density of the project, which typically would qualify for only 29 housing units with the addition of the hair salon and recreation space. It is arguing for permission to add 20 more, noting that 48 of the proposed 49 apartments would be a third the size of what already is permitted on a lot of that size in that zone. And it notes that it will invest in rehabilitating the historic building.

At a February 2013 meeting of the HPC, Levin had supported designating all three of the Palm buildings as cultural resources, but that motion failed for lack of a second. He then joined fellow commissioners Yawar Charlie, Brad Torgan and Gail Ostergren in voting to deny historic designation to the 923 Palm building but add the 927 and 931 Palm buildings to the Old Sherman Thematic Grouping.

In an email to WEHOville, Levin refuted allegations that his involvement in the project is a conflict of interest. Levin said that another client introduced him in 2014 to Dr. David Vayner, the then-owner of the Palm Avenue property, who had opposed the historic designation that Levin voted for. Levin said his firm did some “off and on work” on a residential project for the property. But then Damavandi’s company a client for whom Levin’s firm already was working, bought the property from Vayner and asked Levin to design the senior housing project.

“The city, in an abundance of caution, insisted on an initial study of the project, even though it could have been deemed categorically exempt,” Levin said. “The city also retained Chattel Associates, another historic consultant, to peer-review HRG’s
rehabilitation plan, and our drawings outlining the preservation work on the bungalows. This is almost certainly a higher level of scrutiny than would otherwise have been required had the project’s architect not been my firm.

“Even if you imagine that time travel is possible, why would I have voted for the designation (for) the bungalows — something the owner very much didn’t want — if my goal was to create a viable development site? So what exactly is my conflict supposed to be?”

The Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendation tonight will be sent to the Planning Commission for a final decision. The proposal had been on the May 22 agenda of the Planning Commission’s Urban Design Subcommittee, but that meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum. Duff Bennett, whose home is one of those proposed to be demolished, said he saw that as an effort by the developer to do a run-around of the Historic Preservation Commission and get the proposal directly in front of the Planning Commission.

The Historic Preservation Commission will meet at 7 p.m. tonight in Rooms 5 and 6 of the Community Center at Plummer Park at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd.


3 Comments
  1. @Gary Ban……I would agree with you about parking, but keep in mind that people who enter assisted living and a memory care don’t have cars.

  2. The idea of reducing parking spaces and increasing density on an overcrowded street is insanity. The current situation there is an unsightley mess and something does need to be done. Senior housing sounds like a good idea. But these concessions, as well as ignoring the quality of life on Betty, are unacceptable.

  3. It almost seems pointless to save the 2 structures if they are completely surrounded by huge buildings. The integrity of the neighborhood is long gone anyways. I also feel bad for the future senior citizens living next door to the “death meth” apartment complex where the 2 murders happened and countless violent acts.

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