Opinion: Why the Arts Club Is a Bad Deal for West Hollywood

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.

The Arts Club (illustration by Gensler)

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. 

Residents are getting a paltry 2,200 square foot art gallery and “rehearsal” space for the Gay Men’s Chorus that no one even knew we needed while the developer is

getting hundreds of millions of dollars in entitlements that it was not available under the General Plan and the Sunset Specific Plan.

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.

  1. I agree that housing should be included in a project of this scale. In fact, I think all hotels and projects like this should have to include a minimum amount of affordable housing such as studio apartments in the $1000 to $1500 range. It’s important for some of the people who work in our city to live here too.

  2. Lot zoned for 40 feet, variance given with bribes to god knows who so they can build 140 feet high? This is insane. If they aren’t going to honor the zoning laws the Council wrote, why bother having any zoning laws at all? I might be convinced they can go an extra 8 feet high, like for a rooftop stairway exit, but an extra 100 feet? Have you all lost your mind? There are people in nearby buildings who will have their view illegally blocked by this illegally high development. When people bought their property, they have some reasonable expectation that surrounding lots will only be built to what the code allows. I suspect people will be losing million dollar views, due to the illegal and outrageous 100 extra feet of illegal height the Council members are giving. I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, there is absolute corruption going on here. The Council is robbing nearby property owners of their property value by giving their new generous donor developer “friends” an extra 100 feet of height, for no good reason.

  3. The arts club takes exception to this is misleading and false statements in this op-ed. First of all not one, but four council members voted to approve the arts club, including council members D’Amico, Duran, Horvath, and Meister. Second, the narrow strip of land which is currently the entrance to a parking lot could never accommodate the level of housing or for that matter any housing that is being suggested. Third, there is no night club being proposed, but simply a café and bistro that will have one or two musicians playing some music to accompany those who are dining or having a coffee. This and other parts of the proposed arts club such as the gallery and rehearsal space is not limited to members and is available to any member of the public. Finally, The gallery and rehearsal space is a gift to the city, not only in space but in personnel and programming as well. No one has any pre-arrangements to use the space, and all groups who wish to use a rehearsal space will have to request it from the city who will have full control over who gets to use the space.The arts club is very proud of these approvals, and looks forward to becoming the arts and cultural hub in the city of West Hollywood.

    1. Thank you for pointing out Martin’s falsehoods. There is a reason why he was voted off the council and his efforts to get back on the council since that time have failed. I look forward to this project being built as it will be a wonderful asset to the strip and to the city at large.

  4. The underlying problem is the the process of gaining exceptions to the general plan is grossly tainted as developers know how to throw specific bones to activists to overcome objections. The broader vision of the general plan is lost to developer manipulations. The small city of Weho with its naive and nit overly intellectual city council is particularly susceptible to such blandishments. I recall discussing the bizarrely oversized development in Movietoen with Abbev Lsnd and her response was that the neighborhood was in favor . Sure after being deceived by the developers’ manipulations. Time and time again the general good is being overridden because a builder can always engage in give aways while dissenters inherently have nothing to give away. Believe me the developers are laughing behind John Duran’s back at his shortsighted selfishness.

      1. Thank you, that’s correct but a wee bit oblique given this is an important vote and would give us a break from the 24/7Duran stream front and center. As a community we are not voting for Mr. Duran at this moment.

  5. The Arts Club had tremendous support among community stakeholders, neighborhood groups, and their immediate neighbors. The community benefits are very substantial. Mr. Martin’s comments are misinformed, and quite frankly surprising, given that as a city Councilmember he voted for every single development project that ever came before him. We should be so lucky to have such a high class project in our neighborhood.

    1. Ms. Edrick, unless you plan to be a member of The Arts Club, please tell us what community benefit you and your immediate neighbors will be enjoying and what project(s) that Steve Martin voted for as a coucil member is/are regrettable for the community.

      1. For us adults, with or without kids, a place we would be able to walk to, appreciate the art exhibitions they planning (free to the public) and have a cup of coffee will be a far cry from the opportunities offered on the Santa Monica strip.

    2. Additionally, a No Vote may not necessarily kill the project but may very well bring it into alignment with the General Plan. If The Arts Club really wants to be here in West Hollywood, they will likely adjust.

  6. Martin is right on one thing…”process is important.” And this project went through that process. I am one resident that lives in the Norma Triangle and I attended every single meeting this project went through. The public overwhelming supported this project at every single one of those meetings. We had our fair and open process!! The only reason this is on the ballot is because the local union didn’t get their way and went around telling people falsehoods to get them to sign their petition. Even John Heilman doesn’t believe this should be on the ballot. I firmly believe the same majority will vote to uphold what the City Council already approved. They gave the people what they wanted and we’ll uphold their approval when we all vote on March 5. YES on Measure B!! (oh, and Martin, you failed to mentioned you have been hired by the Union to get the measure defeated…$$$$$ in your pocket)

    1. With all due respect MJ, attending meetings and comprehending the fine points of process in the staff report are entirely different concepts. Even the planning commissioners often miss many of these critical issues and rarely question for fear of seeming incompetent. Several have no concept of authenticity and value. They buy the staff report with its often less than impartial presentation. It becomes an advertorial for the developer but you must look beyond the artful bright and shiny distractions and use common sense according to the established guidelines. Would you want folks to ignore the Design Guidelines established in the Norma Triangle? Would you rather appear incompetent or be incompetent? That is the serious question. John Heilman clearly understood the fine points and consequently voted against the project.

      While it is unfortunate that the union, through its own objectives, has enabled a second opportunity for folks to realize what is actually going on here. that is where we are. Steve Martin presented the challenges in one of the best opinions he has ever written. Connect the dots folks and experience a valuable lesson in comprehension. If the union paid Steve Martin to get out the facts, so be it. Disrespecting the General Plan is a turning point in our community fostering unbridled development and you can’t put out. fire with a feather duster.

      As they would say in London, West Hollywood has been snookered.

      1. What in my comment gave you the impression that I didn’t comprehend the fine points of the process. I do. The General Plan is a guideline not a bible that must be followed blindly. You’re entitled to your opinion. Four out of five council members disagreed with you as do I and a majority of residents that attended the meetings. We comprehend a lot more than you seem to give anyone else credit for expect for the ones that think like you. And if Steve Martin comprehend any more than the rest of us, he wouldn’t have some many failed attempts at getting back on the council he was was voted off from. It will be decided one way or the other on March 5. I would guess that if the measure fails you’ll feel ever smarted and more smug than you already do. VOTE YES on MEASURE B.

        1. MJ, that comment was simply pointing out what Steve Martin had laid out. It wasn’t a truly justifiable departure fro the General Plan, yes that is my opinion and not a smug one as you indicate. I don’t often agree with Mr. Martin’s way of presenting what otherwise would be sound ideas but I take them as they come, and don’t presume to want to change his personality or approach.

          Please read my follow up comment that a NO vote might not likely kill the project but rather revise it. I’m happy you are interested in your back yard but some folks take a more city wide approach regarding development to see how things calibrate and set precedent.

    2. MJ. I totally agree with you here. This project has been dragged through the process in spite of overwhelming support from the neighborhood.

      Also, Martin is up to his usual antics of trying to blame Duran for everything he dislikes in this city. This is a consistent theme of every opinion piece from Martin that I can recall.

      Finally, with regard to the accusation of Martin working for the union attempting to kill this project, I hope WEHOVille will dig further into this. I doubt they will, but they should.

  7. I was already voting NO but you put the nail in the coffin for me. This piece should be on the homepage where more people will see it before the vote, so they will have all of the facts, not just the sugar-coated ones from the developer.

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