The noise started up around 7 a.m., Sunday, January 7, 2007.
“Thwaaaack .?.?. rrrrrrrr .?.?. thwaaaack!”
Ted Otis leaped out of bed and looked down from his 12th-floor apartment in the Fontenoy on Whitley Avenue in Hollywood. His heart jumped as he spotted a backhoe scraping off the front of the nearby building he had been trying to save for months.
Otis picked up his cell phone and dialed 911. “There’s an illegal demolition taking place at 1810 North Whitley Avenue,” he barked out. “Send the police!”
On the elevator ride down, Otis thought about the 200 signatures he collected to save the Mediterranean Revival apartments, built in 1920.
He and others with the preservation group Hollywood Heritage had spent months at city Cultural Heritage Commission meetings and drawn-out Los Angeles City Council meetings. It still rankled him that the mayorally appointed commission had designated 1810 North Whitley as a historic-cultural monument — a big success — but the City Council, rubber-stamping the desires of Hollywood Councilman Tom LaBonge, had rejected the designation.
And now he feared the old building was being demolished without the proper permits. When he reached his lobby, Otis spotted developer Avishay Weinberg of Whitley Investment Group. “What are you doing?” Otis demanded. Weinberg, he says, just shrugged. Then police arrived, the officers looked over Weinberg’s permit papers, found the demolition legal, and left. Otis raised his camera and shot away as the proud old place went down. Another local gem was gone.
Nine months have passed, and Robert Nudelman, director of preservation issues at Hollywood Heritage, is angry. “What you’re basically watching is a city out of control,” he says. “It’s like the 14th-century Catholic Church, where you go down to the church and buy absolution. Developers are doing the same thing, but they go down to City Hall and change the laws.”
Hollywood Heritage helped save the circa-1963 Cinerama Dome and the elaborate Spanish Colonial El Capitan Theatre. But in those battles, Nudelman says, developers and city agencies worked more transparently, following rules established by the 1986 and 2003 Hollywood Redevelopment Plans.
These days, he alleges, transparency has given way to increasingly secretive deals, and L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office is quietly crafting policies to make it happen.
This year, Hollywood Heritage sued the Community Redevelopment Agency, the city and Whitley Investment Group, developers of 1810 North Whitley. They charge the redevelopment agency with failing “to prepare, complete and certify” a required historical survey of old buildings in the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan area, and with ignoring the agency’s own Section 511 — a special protection for Hollywood historic structures that enacts long waiting periods for proposed new developments while their effects are studied.
“Hollywood Heritage isn’t only trying to protect cultural landmarks in Hollywood,” says Robert P. Silverstein, the group’s lawyer, “but the rule of law in all of Los Angeles.”
Contacted by the L.A. Weekly, key city officials refused to discuss the allegation that backroom policies are endangering Hollywood’s thinning inventory of historic buildings. Instead, Councilman LaBonge, Councilman Eric Garcetti’s spokesman and two officials of the Community Redevelopment Agency offered comments ranging from personal ridicule of Nudelman to changing the subject.
When asked whether Delgadillo is pursuing antipreservation policymaking over the heads of the City Council and mayor, LaBonge scoffed, “Nudelman will say anything!” LaBonge says Hollywood — where overbuilding is strangling streets — needs even more apartments, insisting, “I have the city’s best interests at heart.”
Things weren’t always this contentious. Three years ago, after a string of Hollywood demolitions were fast-tracked using a so-called mitigated negative declaration, Hollywood Heritage attended a series of talks with staff representing the Community Redevelopment Agency, LaBonge and Garcetti. (Negative declarations written by the developers state that there will be no serious impact on an area if a building is demolished. If the city agrees, developers can avoid an environmental impact report.)
According to Nudelman, three properties listed on the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan Historic Resources list, supposedly protected under special Section 511, were threatened with demolition using the negative-declaration loophole — 6000-6012 Carlton Way, 1810-1816 North Whitley and 1717 North Bronson Avenue. Hollywood Heritage managed to save the Bronson and Carlton Way buildings.
In 2006, Hollywood Heritage board members Fran Offenhauser and Kay Tornborg, along with Nudelman, met with Kip Rudd — the Community Redevelopment Agency’s senior planner for Hollywood — and Alison Becker, Garcetti’s planning deputy. According to Nudelman, Rudd and Becker told them that Delgadillo’s office had spearheaded an obscure new policy that lets developers remove buildings from the unfinished Historic Resources list. As Nudelman tells it, Becker assured the preservationists that Garcetti did not support the practice. But, Becker complained, Delgadillo’s office wouldn’t return her calls.
The preservationists were surprised to hear that Delgadillo was shutting out Garcetti’s staff on practices that might dramatically reshape the area. According to Nudelman, later, LaBonge’s chief planning deputy, Renee Weitzer, also pointed the finger at Delgadillo’s office.
While redevelopment officials have spent millions of dollars subsidizing new buildings in Hollywood, they have failed to finish a required — and not very expensive — historical survey of the area’s old buildings. The city is letting developers commission their own historic surveys — in which developers find that the buildings they want to destroy lack historic merit.
So, the preservationists started thinking lawsuit. “It was clear the City Attorney’s Office was pulling all of the strings,” says Nudelman, “and needed to be reined in.”
Nudelman, an old hand at City Hall battles, wrangled a meeting last February with Rudd at his CRA office on Sunset Boulevard. Nudelman and Offenhauser expected to meet Deputy City Attorney Edward Young, who defends lawsuits filed against the redevelopment agency, but only Rudd attended. When Nudelman asked about Young, Rudd pointed to a speakerphone. “It was like I was talking to Howard Hughes,” says Nudelman. “I was thinking, what in the world is going on here?”
Nudelman says Young defended the use of mitigated negative declarations to destroy buildings identified as “historic resources,” arguing that Hollywood’s redevelopment plan was “too vague” and “this is our office’s interpretation.” Nudelman says there’s nothing vague about the plan, which at nearly 100 pages long states that the city “shall use established criteria” and “shall develop historic preservation incentives.” Two months later, in April, Hollywood Heritage sued.
Though not involved in the suit, Mike Buhler, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy, is waging a similar fight in North Hollywood, where the redevelopment agency approved a mitigated negative declaration to fast-track demolition of the circa-1961 Commonwealth Savings and Loan Building. Buhler calls it “one of the finest modern buildings” in the Valley.
Now, city officials have gone silent.
Redevelopment agency officials refused to discuss with the Weekly their use of mitigated negative declarations — or Delgadillo’s role in pushing the scheme. The agency’s top dog in Hollywood, Rudd, referred the Weekly’s questions to other city bureaucrats. CRA spokeswoman Kiara Harris refused comment, citing the lawsuit by Hollywood Heritage. Deputy City Attorney Young failed to reply. Delgadillo’s bustling press office — quick to promote softball stories about Delgadillo — ignored four phone calls. Weitzer, LaBonge’s chief planner, failed to respond.
Josh Kamensky, Garcetti’s spokesman, would not discuss whether Garcetti aide Alison Becker was blown off by the city attorney, and instead offered up a pat civics lesson: “The city attorney is our lawyer — they don’t make policy decisions, but if we’re being sued, we do ask them for advice.”
City Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents part of the Valley, was unfamiliar with the Hollywood controversy, but said in an e-mail, “Sounds like some city employees are changing the rules without proper authority,” and promised to push for a review.
But Nudelman isn’t expecting much out of L.A.’s pro-growth and nontransparent City Hall. “Everyone must keep an eye out for the city to do something wrong,” he says. “If they can get away with something, they’ll do it.”