On a 6-1 vote on Thursday, West Hollywood’s Planning Commission sent a proposed apartment building back to the drawing board over concerns about unenclosed stairways that violate the city’s building code.
A proposed four-story, seven-unit apartment building at 1150 N. Orange Grove Ave. (north of Santa Monica Boulevard) would replace two single-family homes currently on the lot. One of the units in the project would be set aside for low-income residents. The property is owned by Fred Houriani.
The Commission demanded the revisions because the front and rear staircases are not enclosed as the building code requires. Fire can easily spread from one floor to the next via open staircases, thus the code requires staircases to be enclosed.
City planning staff said that the city’s Building and Safety Department typically catches such building code violations when it reviews plans.
“I am very concerned that we are being asked to review plans that aren’t meeting basic safety codes,” said Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner. “It was certainly my expectation when I agreed to serve in this position that I would be receiving things that met basic requirements. That today we reviewed something that didn’t meet an important safety code is a problem for me . . . We are having to do staff’s job for them in identifying items that can’t be built.”
During the public comment period, resident Ed Levin, an architect, suggested the city move forward with hiring a city architect rather than relying on building and safety to review plans for code violations.
“It is not reasonable to expect that Building and Safety, on top of the rest of their work load, can look in detail at projects as they change, as they come forward, as they move through the process, and really understand and really give adequate feedback to this commission and to the applicants regarding building code issues, accessibility issues, all the sort of things that affect the planning, affect what the building will look like, but that don’t yet come to the point of dealing with in plan check,” Levin said.
Aside from the code violation, the commissioners liked the overall design and massing of the building. However, they asked the architect, Amit Apel, to also redesign the outdoor areas for residents.
The city’s building code requires that all units have at least 120 square feet of “outdoor private space,” (i.e. a balcony or patio). The city prefers the outdoor private space be directly connected to the unit, but under some circumstances allows it to be elsewhere in the building.
The Orange Grove building has large balconies directly connected to three of the units. However, the other four have tiny balconies connected to the units with the rest of the outdoor private space provided in fenced-in areas on the roof. To access these rooftop private areas, residents would have to exit their apartments and use the communal staircase to get to the roof.
Commissioner Rogerio Carvalheiro said these side-by-side, fenced-in private space areas on the roof resembled “cages,” lacked a view, and would likely not get used. “I can’t imagine anyone activating that space and going up there and using that space,” he said.
Carvalheiro also questioned the placement required by the code of communal open space that all the building’s residents can use. The architect placed the communal open space on the ground level at the rear of the property, but Carvalheiro noted that space is only accessible via a tiny path and therefore was unlikely to get used by the residents.
“I believe open space is so valuable in our city that we can’t let the spaces go unused,” Carvalheiro said.
Hoopingarner agreed, calling the communal open space at the rear “dead space” that was not well thought out.
Commissioner John Altschul cast the single dissenting vote, feeling it was not necessary to bring the project back to the full commission. He believed the changes being requested were minor and could be approved by the city’s planning department staff.
The rest of the commissioners disagreed, believing the changes were substantial enough to come back for full commission review. Commissioner Stacy Jones said it was the commission’s responsibility to make sure the building that gets built closely resembles the building they approve.
“What I don’t want, and I don’t think anybody here wants, is for us to approve something tonight and then for it to look completely different once it’s actually built,” Jones said. “It’s not fair, it’s not due public process. We want to be able to see what the final project will look like to the best of our ability.”
Extended Business Hours
The Commission also unanimously approved a plan to allow businesses to apply to stay open past 2 a.m. through applications submitted to the city’s Business License Commission.
Currently, businesses applying for extended hours must get a minor conditional use permit (MCUP) through a hearing with the Community Development director or, on rare occasions, with the full Planning Commission.
The advantage of this new plan is that it would drastically reduce the permit cost from the current $7,000 to $1,700, with $200 yearly renewals.
The other advantage is that is that when the Business License Commission grants the license for extended hours, it would be granted to the business owner and subject to renewal annually.
When the Community Development director, or Planning Commission, approves a conditional use permit, the approval stays with the land in perpetuity. Thus, if a business with extended hours were to fail, the next business to open there would automatically be entitled to have extended hours since the permit stays with the land.
David Fanaroff, owner of Z Pizza at 8869 Santa Monica Blvd. at San Vicente, favored the changes. Fanaroff said he and other shops would like to stay open past 2 a.m. to catch more business when the bars close, but the current $7,000 fee and four-month waiting period were prohibitive.
The Commission especially liked the plan because having the seven-member Business License Commission consider the extended hours would provide for a more thoughtful discussion than having just a single person considering it at a Community Development director hearing.
Commissioner Adam Bass noted that with this new plan, it will be easier for residents to participate since the Business License Commission meets at night – at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month. Community Development director’s hearings are held in the late afternoon – at 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month.
This added responsibility would not likely overwhelm the Business License Commission since the group rarely meets; its meetings are generally cancelled since they have no pending items. Code compliance manager Jeff Aubel reported that the Business License Commission met one time in the past year and that was for a training session. Commissioner Stacey Jones reported she served for two years on that commission and it met twice in those two years.
This item now goes to the City Council for final approval later in the fall.
Temporary Business Signs
The Commission also unanimously approved allowing more flexibility in temporary business sign when stores are up for lease or undergoing renovations.
Currently, the city only allows small signs saying that a building is for rent or, if leased, what business is about to open. Under the new plan, the size restrictions for the signs would be removed. The entire window could be used if desired.
The information on those signs would be limited to leasing information and leasing agents. However, the plan would allow building owners/leasing agents to put renderings of possible uses for the space in the windows. For example, large drawings or photos of the interior of a restaurant or a furniture store could be put in the window, depending on the type of business the owner hopes to attract. That could spur the imagination of potential tenants to see the possibilities for the space.
Commissioner David Aghaei thought it was a “wonderful” idea.
“When you enhance the visual element of ‘what this could be,’ it makes it easier for prospective tenants or purchasers to go into the space,” said Aghaei. “The end result is, it’s great for the city from an economic perspective, it’s great for the residents from a pedestrian-oriented and services perspective. Assuming it’s implemented correctly and appropriately, it’s a win-win-win.”
If the space has already been leased, then temporary signage could only relate to the new business, either through words, pictures or drawings. No advertising for businesses not connected to the property (known as “off-site signage”) would be allowed.
This proposal is similar to the artwork on construction fencing item which the City Council approved in August. The primary difference is construction fencing could be up for a year or two or even longer. But these temporary business signs are only intended to be up for a few months.
This item now moves to the City Council for final approval, possibly later this fall.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that Commission Ed Levin blamed the city’s planning staff for failing to catch potential violations of the building code in the plan for the 1150 N. Orange Grove Ave. project. In fact, Levin said the failure to note the errors was evidence the city needs an official architect to review such plans. The story has been corrected to reflect that.