On a 4-1 vote, West Hollywood’s City Council approved the large Robertson Lane hotel-retail-restaurant project on Monday night after a three-hour public hearing.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the council chamber, with the public comment portion of the meeting consuming 90 minutes, 40 people speaking in favor of the project and 16 against it. A majority of those opposed were from the UNITE Here Local 11 hotel workers union, primarily concerned that the hotel pay its workers a living wage.
Owner Jason Illoulian, who is developing Robertson Lane through his company, Faring, and said it would be his family’s “legacy,” volunteered to add a number of conditions, including paying hotel workers a minimum of $15.37 per hour, providing hotel workers with panic buttons and making a concerted effort to hire local workers.
The Robertson Lane project straddles Robertson Boulevard and La Peer Drive, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, 1.94 acres of land that is now occupied by parking lots and the historic Factory building. The project will include a nine-story hotel with a total of 241 rooms, plus a rooftop restaurant and pool. With six levels of subterranean parking for a total of 750 parking spaces, Robertson Lane will also include ground-level retail and restaurant space, plus an underground nightclub. The centerpiece of the project is a 35-foot wide walkway, known as a “paseo,” in the middle of the site, going between Robertson and La Peer.
The Council liked the project, Councilmember John Heilman calling it an “exceptional design,” and praising it for enhancing area which is currently underutilized.
During public comment, several people hailed the fact Robertson Lane will include banquet/event/convention space for up to 700 people, something desperately needed in the city. Other commenters said it will offer an economic boost to a section of town that is a “dead man’s zone,” as one person described it.
Councilmember Lauren Meister cast the sole vote against the project, concerned that a nine-story building, with a height of 114 feet, goes against the city’s General Plan, which guides development in the city. She criticized the fact the project’s Environmental Impact Report did not consider whether a five or six-story hotel would work there. However, the other councilmembers did not express worries about the height. Likewise, only one public commenter mentioned the height.
Meister was also troubled that the project was far more valuable than was being estimated, suggesting Faring should pay somewhere between $20 and $25 million in public benefits, instead of the $9.17 million being proposed.
However, none of the other council members shared that concern either. Councilmember John D’Amico said $9.17 million seemed like the “sweet spot.” Heilman noted the city hired consultants Keyser Marston Associates for their expertise and should trust their calculations on the project’s value.
Robertson Lane is scheduled to pay $4 million in cash for streetscaping, West Hollywood Park improvements and security improvements in the area. Additionally, the project will provide subsidized parking for area businesses to lease and also pay .75% above the standard Transit Occupancy Tax (hotel room tax) over the next 25 years, for a total of approximately $5 million.
Repositioning the Factory Building
To accommodate that paseo going through the middle of the project, the historic Factory building, which sits on an east-west axis between Robertson and La Peer, will be dismantled and rebuilt on a different portion of the site. As it is rebuilt, the building (once home to Mitchell Camera, an early maker of movie cameras, and later the site of the famous Studio One gay nightclub) will also be repositioned on a north-south axis along Robertson. Plans call for the 240-feet long Factory building to be shortened by about 100 feet when it is reassembled. The green paint currently covering the windows will be scraped off, so the retail shops in the reassembled building will have lots of natural light.
Although repositioning the Factory building along Robertson has drawn criticism from some locals, several local preservation groups gave their blessing, including the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance (WHPA), the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Adrian Scott Fine of the LA Conservancy said moving the building was “not perfect preservation,” but would be “meaningful preservation.”
Illoulian said the Factory building will become the “crown jewel” of Robertson Boulevard. The Council praised him for preserving the Factory building, although Meister questioned if it could retain its status as a state historic building (the California Historic Resources Commission designated the Factory building as a state historic resource in October 2016) once it is repositioned.
That question aside, Meister also commented that the Factory was the defining aspect of the project.
“It’s the Factory building that gives the project its character. It is the Factory building that shouts loud and proud, ‘This is West Hollywood.’ Not the hotel, it’s the Factory. The Factory is what makes the project special,” said Meister. “Without this building, the Robertson Lane project is, frankly, just another project.”
The Studio One nightclub had a well-documented history of discriminatory practices toward admitting minorities, sometimes demanding three IDs from black or Latino gay patrons and often arbitrarily enforcing dress codes for women. Several public commenters said that discriminatory history .
D’Amico requested Faring file paperwork so the city can designate the Factory building a local historic cultural resource prior to the project being issued a certificate of occupancy.
Mayor John Duran, who shared memories of spending every weekend for a decade dancing at Studio One in the late 1970s and 1980s, said he supported the project, but with a heavy heart. Duran wished he and his friends (many of whom died from AIDS) could still be dancing at Studio One, but realizes that gay culture has evolved in the past 30 years.
“I don’t take this decision lightly. This is my history, my culture,” said Duran, who requested Illoulian host one final “going away” party at Studio One to honor the people (especially the “spirits” of those who have died) who found a home, who found acceptance and belonging at the club.
Duran expressed hope that the project and its businesses be developed to have the flavor of the “Boystown” LGBT entertainment district along Santa Monica Boulevard rather than the design district showrooms along Melrose Avenue. He also felt the project should have less retail space and more cafes and restaurants.
“This project, in my mind, has to reflect Santa Monica [Boulevard] and not Melrose,” said Duran. “If this thing starts to look like The Grove, looks like a mall, I will be devastated to think that historic Boystown will start to look like a mall.”
After the meeting, Faring representatives were delighted by the vote and happy that the community got behind the project.
“We thank everyone in the community who sat down with us to share their concerns and hopes,” Jake Stevens, Faring’s director of community engagement, told WEHOville. “Their openness made this an amazing project and Robertson Lane is better for the input.”