Vote No on Measure B.The Arts Club is just bad for West Hollywood. It is a bad deal for our residents and a bad precedent on how developments should be approved in our city.
Deep pocketed developers have infiltrated our city and are increasingly sophisticated in getting around the limitations set by the General Plan. It used to be that developers could get breaks from the City Council by bundling a couple thousand dollars in campaign contributions and maybe a contribution to a Council member’s favorite charity. But now developers are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in manipulative “public outreach” campaigns and the dividends have never been more lucrative. The approval of the Art’s Club is reminiscent of the sale of Manhattan by naïve indigenous people for $24 in beads and blankets.
Forty percent of the half-acre parcel is zoned as residential, but the developer is not building a single unit of housing and instead is giving us a paltry half million toward our affordable housing fund.
Let’s start with what the developer is getting. The parcel is zoned for height of 40 feet and approximately 30,000 square feet of construction. What the developer is getting is an additional 100 feet in height, bringing the building up to nine stories and an extra 88,000 square feet of development. As Councilmember John Heilman pointed out, that was quadruple the density allowed under the General Plan. This is “go-go development” gone-gone wild.
Furthermore the project has two floors of “creative” office space and a ground floor “bistro” that includes live music and live entertainment. The developer failed to mention that there will be a nightclub opening less than 100 feet from the residential neighborhood.
Staff presented a “revised” traffic study on the day of the hearing over the objection of John Heilman who protested that the public was never given an opportunity to be heard on this issue. He pointed out that the project is so large that it would warrant a signal as weekend traffic would need a signal for westbound traffic to make a left turn to enter the project. Heilman pointed out that the city experienced horrific traffic under similar circumstances in 1994 when the House of Blues opened. His concerns were ignored and the approval was railroaded to avoid any inconvenience to the developer. Signals are expensive and, as Heilman, pointed out, the city will eventually have to install one.
Aligned with the developer, unsurprisingly, is Mayor John Duran, who appears to view this project as his personal legacy. During the hearing he bragged that he lobbied for special entitlements for the project. The 2,200 square feet in gallery/rehearsal space is meant to be a rehearsal space for the Gay Men’s Chorus, that ungrateful group that recently demanded his resignation over sexual harassment claims. The development was proclaimed to represent a seminal point in the cultural history of the Sunset Strip, a statement that is as pretentious as it is preposterous.
John Heilman pointed out that approval of this project represented a “repudiation of the Sunset Specific Plan” and it certainly rendered the General Plan completely meaningless. While we have seen substantial departures from the General Plan in recent history, this approval demonstrated that the General Plan is completely irrelevant to deep pocketed developers. Heilman was the sole Council member to ask hard questions and vote against the project. The others seemed too intimidated or personally invested in the project to protect the integrity of the General Plan.
Far from creating a “cultural hub,” the Arts Club is an exclusive, member-only venue. The “Club” consists of a restaurant, roof top bar and pool and ten luxury suites for members that will not be treated as hotel rooms and will not pay transit occupancy tax. In fact, it seems like the rooms will be for assignations with high end hookers. Aside from the fact that members of the public (you), are not welcome in the Club, it is difficult to see what part of the Club is “cultural.” It is just an expensive club house for the 1%.
I will concede that the architecture is unique but is designed to not interfere with the neighboring tall walls.
The major beneficiary of the project is the developer. The 2,200 square foot gallery/performing arts/rehearsal space is relatively tiny. The value assigned to this space is $10 million. Do the math. We give the developer 88,000 in additional space that it is not entitled to under the General Plan and we only get 2,200 square feet. Not much of a bargain. But if our 2,200 square feet is worth $10 million, then the remaining 86,000 square feet are worth about $350 million to the developer. So the total $13 million the developer is graciously contributing to the city seems like chump change. It is less than 2% of the total value of the project.
If the city needed a 2,200-square-foot art gallery/rehearsal space we would not pay $10 million dollars of it. Indeed, we already have Fiesta Hall or even that space at the Kings Road garage where Aaron’s Brothers used to be that could be used for rehearsal space. If we need this space, why are we demolishing the perfectly good auditorium in West Hollywood Park?
My biggest objection is that the developer spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars doing door to door “outreach” to drum up support for the project. Those folks knocking on doors did not tell residents about the night club or that the height and density of the project far exceeded the General Plan and the Sunset Specific Plan. They did not talk about the traffic and circulation issues. They just said we were getting all of these wonderful cultural programs. This campaign of disinformation and half truths distorted the public process. I have a number of intelligent, well-meaning friends who supported this project based upon what they were told. No one told them about the windfall to the developer. Nobody told the residents how the proposed project undermined the General Plan. This process was inherently dishonest and undermines our local democracy. It is just a few steps removed from the tactics used by the Russians in the 2016 Presidential election.
While the project will be giving the city a couple of million for cultural events over the next ten years this project could have been so much better for the community.
First of all we could have required housing on the 40% of the parcel that was zoned residential. With nine stories the project could have had five or six floors of housing without impinging on the club house portion of the Arts Club. We easily could have requested a dozen or more affordable housing units. Instead we get a rehearsal space for the Gay Men’s Chorus. They are a nice group, but the “cultural benefit” the city will receive is only going to be enjoyed by a couple hundred people. This will not be a community cultural center; it is only three times the size of a 700-square-foot apartment. The $3 million in cash would have been better spent creating a fund to provide rental assistance to West Hollywood tenants in danger of becoming homeless.
Despite what you read in the slick mailers, the Art’s Club is not producing any windfall for HIV or senior programs or additional law enforcement. Indeed we are being short changed from any hotel tax on the ten luxury rooms that are exclusively for their members; rooms that could have been in local hotels and generating hotel tax. That represents a tax LOSS of at least $150,000 a year. So the bottom line is that these rooms are cheating West Hollywood out of tax revenue. The mailers don’t tell you about that rip off. The cynical appeal to tie this project to people with AIDS is outrageous and disgusting.
This project is about pandering to elites. It is about creating a vanity project for a couple of City Council members. It is about the need for John Duran to have a physical legacy that he hopes he can attach his name to.
But at the end of the day, process is important. I don’t like putting planning decisions on the ballot but here we have a unique and terrible precedent of a developer who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to undermine the public process and sell the project under false pretenses.
We need to stand up for the integrity of the General Plan and the planning process. We need to protect the process from self serving campaigns of disinformation. Not telling the whole truth can be tantamount to telling a lie. Ignore the slick mailers promoting the Arts Club that are long on glittering generalities and short on specifics. Obviously the developer will spare no expense to win this vote.
Voting “no” will stop this monument to John Duran’s ego. A “no” vote is a vote to protect the integrity of the General Plan and preserve a “fact based” planning process. Vote “No” on Measure B to protect West Hollywood from unscrupulous developers. Let’s insure that West Hollywood’s future is decided in an open and fair public process. Let insure that we, the people of West Hollywood, decide our future.