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The Hollywood project’s genesis is a lesson in how massive developments — from Playa Vista on the Westside to the Grand Avenue Project downtown — take on an air of inevitability long before the broader citizenry is invited into the picture.
According to Molasky Pacific spokesman Brian Lewis, the firm took its audacious plans for Columbia Square to Garcetti’s people at a single meeting in May 2006. But public records show the developer met with Garcetti’s aides four times that spring. The encounters included a flurry of three meetings in a nine-day period in May, complete with a “site visit” at which Garcetti’s staff was present, on May 5. And there would be more meetings to come.
At the time, Molasky Pacific was working through its “due diligence” period, in which a developer researches a property before it makes a financial commitment. For decades in Los Angeles, knowing where the City Council member–cum–land-use czar stands on a project in his or her council district has been the first, and most crucial, stage of due diligence.
Throwing down $66 million on a whim and a guess about the council member’s intent simply doesn’t happen.
“The first thing you do [as a developer] is make sure your plan is in line with the council member’s vision,” says former City Councilman Art Snyder, an originator of the City Council’s closed-door, land czar–based culture, who served in the 14th District on the Eastside from 1967 to 1985. “Otherwise, you have a heck of a time getting it through the system.”
Snyder is too modest. In truth, major projects are almost impossible without the council member’s tacit approval. The fact that the council member usually has few, if any, credentials to make such sweeping decisions, spending much of his or her life as a teacher, cop or college lecturer, is irrelevant to his or her influence over the land in Los Angeles. “Unless the councilman says ‘no,’ you go ahead,” Snyder explains.
Jacque Lamishaw, a land-use consultant for more than 20 years, who advises developers on how to approach City Hall, agrees, explaining, “We’re telling [developers] that the do-all and end-all is your city councilman.”
Going into that first meeting in the late spring of 2006 with Garcetti''s people — he and his fellow council members often employ 20 or more loyalists, apiece, on the public rolls — Molasky Pacific must have felt confident. Although Garcetti’s spokeswoman, Julie Wong, this week strongly dowplayed his leadership of it, the councilman is a big backer of “smart growth” — a major shift toward more density that has at its center "transit-oriented development.” Its feature is compact, multistory, mixed-use housing projects to be erected within 1,500 feet of bus and subway lines citywide. The policies, embraced both by Garcetti and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, dramatically water down hard-won, protective zoning in almost every area of Los Angeles. (Click here to download a PDF of the map.)
Garcetti had also been talking up high-density projects on his own turf, like the W hotel at Hollywood and Vine, where a 296-room hotel, 350 apartments and 145 condominiums were planned. On May 5, 2005, Garcetti described the project on his blog as “truly impressive,” noting that 74 rentals were considered affordable housing. The other 421 were not.
“Eric is pro-development,” says Lamishaw. “If a project has affordable housing, he loves it even more.”
That same year, the Clarett Group, a firm known for high-rise development in Manhattan, was seeking to build a different project nearby: more than 1,000 rental units and 175,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space near the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Frank Stephan, manager of the Clarett Group’s West Coast operations, told The Planning Report, “We booked a flight, flew out here, and sat down with Eric Garcetti and his staff.”
The congestion now shutting down Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, an outgrowth of the massive Hollywood & Highland project and other constant construction that has turned the district into a gridlocked destination point for urban hipsters, was not the focus of the 2005 meeting with Garcetti.
They did talk housing, 10 percent of which Clarett promised to set aside as affordable rentals. The other 900 or so apartments were expected to bring in “market-rate” rents — developer lingo for “not cheap” — in an area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, where about 60 percent of the residents are foreign-born, 16 percent have no education beyond the sixth grade, 83 percent are renters, and the median household income is just $24,074.
“Council President Garcetti has been extremely helpful,” raved Clarett in his interview. “He was supportive [of getting] City Council approval.”
Molasky Pacific was undoubtedly expecting the same kind of treatment. Firm president Cassidy wouldn’t comment on the specifics of its several meetings with Garcetti’s staffers. But on July 20, 2006, a few weeks after the crush of meetings in April and May, Kenneth Wynn, executive vice president of design and construction for Molasky Pacific — and brother of Las Vegas casino titan and hotel developer Steve Wynn — contributed $500 to Garcetti’s campaign chest.