Planning Commission Deadlocks on 939 Spaulding Ave. Project

939-949 N. Spaulding Ave. (JFAK Architects)

With one Commissioner absent and the other six deadlocked, West Hollywood’s Planning Commission voted on Thursday night to continue a hearing about a condominium complex on the southwest corner of Spaulding Avenue and Romaine Street.

The proposed four-story, 22-unit condo building with four units set aside for low-income residents would cover four adjacent lots at 939-949 Spaulding Avenue and 7732 Romaine Street. Those lots currently have single-family homes and accessory buildings for a total of eight existing rent-controlled, residential units.

Overall, the Commission liked the contemporary design of the project, but had issues regarding the setback from the sidewalk. City rules say a project’s front setback should be the average of the setbacks of the adjacent properties, which in this case would be 26 feet. However, the developer, AA CA Property Portfolio 2 LLC, was asking for a variance to have 15-foot setbacks. The architect, John Friedman of the Los Angeles-based JFAK Architects, noted the mass of the building starts at 22 feet from the sidewalk, but the seven-foot balconies project out from the mass, thus making the setback 15 feet.

Commissioners John Altschul, Adam Bass and Lynn Hoopingarner all had reservations about granting the variance, Hoopingarner fearing it would set a precedent.

Former Planning Commissioner Marc Yeber, who was representing the developer, pointed out the Commission approved a 15-foot setback for the apartment building at 933 Spaulding Avenue, next door to the proposed project. Yeber explained they were merely asking for the same “rights and privileges” granted to that project, which has not yet begun construction.

Bass noted that if the project at 933 Spaulding had already started construction, then the average setback for the block would indeed be 15 feet. However, since it hasn’t started, they had to abide by the average setback of the existing buildings, making it 26 feet.

Commissioners Sue Buckner, Stacey Jones and Rogerio Carvalheiro felt the fact construction on 933 Spaulding had not yet begun was just a technicality.

“We cannot discriminate against this developer and deny them a right when we’ve, right next door, provided that developer with the variance for the 15 foot setback,” Buckner said.

Some 17 people spoke during public comment at the two-hour hearing. Fifteen people spoke against it, mostly residents of the neighborhood who did not want the building so close to the sidewalk. Resident Michael Bourke said he’d prefer it be built to five stories and keep the 26-foot setback.

Area neighbors also were upset by the loss of a cluster of redwood trees, which were planted about 100 years ago on one of the lots, saying the redwoods added something special to the area.

However, the developer pointed out that redwood trees are water greedy and are native to Northern California and the Central Coast, not Southern California. An arborist hired by the developer reported the redwoods are unhealthy and dying, thanks primarily to receiving reduced water in the past decade due to the area’s ongoing drought.

Also concerning was the fact that the seven people currently living on those four lots would be displaced when the existing buildings are demolished. Schoolteacher Pam Kramer, who lived in the house with the redwoods until six weeks ago, reported she said she had to move to Long Beach to find housing she could afford. Another resident said he might end up moving to Arizona since area apartment rents are so high.

Altschul expressed concern the city was losing eight units of rent-controlled housing, but would only gain four new units for low-income residents, thus a net loss of four “affordable” units. He noted the city is attempting to have a policy of one-to-one replacement of “affordable” units when existing building are demolished and new ones erected, but that policy isn’t being implemented here. Altschul suggested a court case to test the policy might help settle the issue, if not on this project, then at some other property in the future.

Commissioner David Aghaei was the person who was absent. The Commission will likely hear this project again in the fall when it is certain all seven will be present.

Joining Commercial and Residential Properties

On a unanimous vote, the Commission recommended the City Council repeal a policy allowing projects that span both the commercial zones and residential zones to be developed as one property.

Currently, if a developer buys a property in a commercial area and also buys the adjacent residential property behind it, then the entire project can be developed using the standards of the commercial zone, in regards to height, massing, density, setbacks, etc.

The Commission was being asked to create a uniform policy regarding development of such projects, but ultimately felt a one-size-fits-all policy would not work.

Commissioner Stacey Jones felt such a uniform policy would create future problems.

“I just think this is kind of a template for something that can’t be templatized. I think we’re opening the door for so many potential problems and loopholes,” said Jones. “It’s unintended but not unpreventable consequences, I think that’s what I’m concerned about.”

In recommending repeal of the current policy, the Commission also recommended that projects spanning commercial and residential lots be developed as fully separated lots, adhering to the zoning standards of each lot.

The Commissioners noted that a project can always request a “specific plan,” which creates a development plan unique to that single project, if it is truly needed. For example, the 8899 Beverly project (just west of Robertson Boulevard) was approved via a “specific plan.” That project is on the Beverly Boulevard commercial corridor, but also includes residential properties behind it on Rosewood Avenue.

Architects Ed Levin, Ric Abramson and Richard Giesbret, all West Hollywood residents, each spoke strongly in favor of repealing the existing policy.

It is unclear how or why this commercial-residential lot policy originated, but city staff said it seemed to date back to the early 1990s. Currently, two projects are being developed that fall into both commercial and residential zones, although neither will be affected by this change in policy (if the City Council approves it) since they have already completed all their paperwork.

One is the Orange Grove Hotel project with hotel, retail and residential units at 7811 Santa Monica Boulevard (just east of the Whole Foods Market), which bought several residential lots behind it on Orange Grove Avenue and Ogden Drive.

The other is the massive retail-residential project at 8555 Santa Monica Boulevard (just east of the Ramada Inn), which also purchased three homes behind it on West Knoll Drive. That project is currently scheduled to be reviewed at Planning Commission in late September.

Fourth Floor Setbacks

Finally, the Commission voted unanimously reject a policy requiring residential buildings that are four stories tall to have a 15-foot setback on the top floor.

The policy was being recommended to reduce the visibility of the top floor from the sidewalk, thereby reducing the perception of the building’s height. However, the Commission felt such a policy would stifle architectural creativity.

Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner recused herself from the vote since she owns property in one of the areas affected by the policy.

  1. I am happy for those who agree with the decision. However, I’ve followed the planning commission meetings & their total disregard for the legally mandated right for local citizens to express concerns. Thus, 3 minutes was the shortest time that wouldn’t be basically a silencing of the people living in WeHo.

    However, again, apparently good outcome for all.

    COINCIDENCE … Is a real word, and however unlikely, it may have happened with the planning commissions pre-decided outcome, coincided with the public’s right to speak.

  2. To Manny. I’m sorry the article above did not note that members of the public also spoke during the public comment period for the commercial-residential setbacks. All of us had the same conclusion as the architects, but none of us were as articulate in our presentations as the architects. I can’t remember how many of us spoke (it was a long night, there were definitely 3 and then maybe another 2 who spoke, but also several citizens in the audience were in agreement with the architects and the Citizens who did speak but didn’t feel confident enough to speak on this highly technical item (I know because I asked them). So, the mistake is not really yours.

  3. Although it’s disconcerting that the only speakers during public testimony for the commercial-residential hearing were architects, it seems like the Commission made the right decision. I just hope they don’t start throwing “Specific Plans” around like Oprah……You get a Specific Plan!….and you get a Specific Plan!

    ……and thank you to the writer of this article for making sense of it all.

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