A controversial senior-care facility proposed behind two historic properties on Palm Avenue received thumbs down from West Hollywood’s Historic Preservation Commission during its Monday night meeting.
The two bungalows at 927 and 931 Palm Ave., just north of Cynthia Street, were designated as historic landmarks in 2013. That designation means they cannot be demolished.
However, West Hollywood-based Dylan Investment Properties is seeking to build a four-story, 19,000 square-foot, 48-room, L-shaped building at 923 Palm Ave. that extends into the backyard of the two historic properties. Dylan Investment is owned by Jeffrey Damavandi.
The commission’s job on Monday night was to determine whether this new building would have an impact the two historic properties. Its members were clear that they thought it did. Their objections boiled down to issues of setting and subordinance to the historic properties.
Federal historic property guidelines allow new structures to be built adjacent to the historic homes, provided that “when visible and in close proximity to historic buildings, the new construction must be subordinate to these [historic] buildings.”
The commissioners felt that the new, four-story building would overwhelm the two single-story historic houses.
Resident Dee Linz, speaking during the public comment period, summed it up by saying that a 19,000-square-feet building cannot be considered subordinate. As for the setting, the commissioners said they believed the new building would drastically alter the intent of the historic designation, which, at least in part, is to preserve a feeling of what the Old Sherman district was like when the bungalows were built in 1902.
The historic designation is only for the houses, not the yards. Nonetheless, the commission noted that homes of that era tended to have large back yards. With a giant new structure behind the houses, they said the feeling of the setting would be lost; that future generations would not have a context to understand why these houses were designated.
Commissioner Kevin Yavari summed it up by saying, “If you put a four-story, L-shaped building around the Alamo, you ruin the setting.”
The project was designed by WeHo architect Ed Levin, who also serves on the Historic Preservation Commission. Because it was his project, Levin was not allowed to vote or even be in the room during the discussion.
The commissioners did not mention Levin’s name during their deliberations. Before the meeting, he had been criticized by residents of homes near the project who said his involvement in it was a conflict of interest. The West Hollywood Preservation Alliance raised questions about the propriety of the process for declaring buildings on the property historically and culturally significant, claiming that the matter hadn’t been brought up for public discussion at a July 15, 2013, City Council meeting. In an email exchange with WEHOville, Levin provided links to documents showing that such a discussion had occurred. Levin said he had sought advice from the City Attorney regarding his role as the project architect and a commissioner. He noted that an independent consultant hired by the developer and one engaged by the city did not find the project in conflict with the historic buildings on the property.
Levin’s name did come up during the public comment period when resident Lynn Russell criticized him for agreeing to do the project, especially given his staunch advocacy for historic preservation.
“What Mr. Levin primarily missed was a noble opportunity to design a structure embracing the cottages stylistically,” Russell said. “This project should be better viewed as an opportunist move against the spirit of historic preservation which Mr. Levin is as a sitting commissioner. In his better judgment, he should have elected to pass on this project and allow this property to retain a sense of place. That would be truly a noble act.”
The commission’s final vote was 4-1 to deny approval. Newly sworn in Commissioner Jacob Lajoie voted to approve the project, but did not explain why. Commissioner Yawar Charlie was absent and Levin had to recuse himself.
Although the design of the project is not under the purview of the Historic Preservation Commission, it came up repeatedly during the meeting.
Commissioner Cathy Blaivas said she felt the new building did not blend in with the historic buildings and did nothing to complement them.
“The things about these bungalows, even in their pseudo state of disrepair, they’re homes. They have a charm, they have character,” Blaivas said. “The non-subordinate building is the antithesis of that.”
Jeff Seymour, representing Dylan Investment Properties, said that the senior care facility would be operated by North Star Living Communities and specialize in “memory care” (i.e., Alzheimer’s and dementia patients).
Several commissioners and public commenters said that a facility on a sloping site like that on Palm Avenue was a bad idea for Alzheimer’s’ patients who need flat ground and more open space to get lots of sunshine.
The project also was criticized because of the tight space between the back of the historic homes and the new building. Plans call for a mere ten-and-a-half feet between the back door of the 931 Palm building and the four-story facility.
Of the 15 people who spoke during the public comment period, none supported the project.
Resident Ruth Murphy compared the project to a Warsaw ghetto while resident Michael Wojtkielewicz said that a rat’s maze had more personality than the proposed building.
Approximately three dozen people sat in the audience. They held up placards to indicate their support or opposition to various comments made. When a speaker said something they liked, they held up the sign reading “Agree.” When a speaker said something they disliked, they turned the hand sign around to read “Disagree.”
Duff Bennett, who lives in the small, non-historically designated house at the rear of the 931 Palm property, said he designed the placards as a way to quietly and respectfully convey how the audience felt about the comments as they were being expressed.
“In order to let the Commission people know what the position of the audience is, I created all of these signs to give to [people in the audience] so we could hold them up, and now everybody knows,” Bennett explained. “I’m pleased how well they worked.”
After the meeting, Ralf Knoll, who has lived in the 927 Palm Ave. historic home for six years said he was delighted by the vote.
“The building is too large for the site and not welcome in the neighborhood,” Knoll told WEHOville. “I am glad they will preserve the past for future generations to enjoy.”
The project next moves to the Design Review subcommittee of the Planning Commission. After that, it goes to the full Planning Commission which will take the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision and suggestions from Design Review in mind as it decides whether to approve or deny the project.