By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Allegra Allison, a quick-talking, blond-haired community activist wearing a black skirt and top with black-leather boots, stands outside a chain-link fence surrounding the 1914 Colonial Revival mansion and property called Tara. She was one of the tenants who lived in it for more than 25 years. Situated half a block from Sunset Boulevard on Laurel Avenue, the property is a historic landmark; its late owner, Elsie Weisman, donated it to the city in the belief, Allison says, that it would be preserved as a park.
Weisman's dream is wildly popular in a city that is one of the most dense communities west of the Mississippi, with 18,000 people per square mile and more than 24,000 housing units. About 86 percent white, and with children making up only 6 percent of residents, it is more than 40 percent gay and has a sizable Russian-speaking community. There's little open space — a Chicago developer who plans to raze the original Tower Records store on Sunset is touting a 12-foot strip of grass at his proposed five-story retail-and-office project as a "pocket park."
Instead of a park at Tara, West Hollywood politicians decided to build a 28-unit affordable-housing project for seniors. "That property came to us with no stipulations," Land tells the Weekly.
Allison had never paid attention to West Hollywood politics, but in 2003 she went to a City Council meeting and begged the five council members, who sit high above the public on a stage in the West Hollywood Auditorium, not to overrun Tara and its leafy grounds.
"It's a progressive city," she says, "and I figured they would get it and do the right thing. But immediately they started fighting us."
Allison collected more than 2,000 signatures of support and found herself at the center of a war between affordable-housing proponents and citizens tired of destruction of the old and overbuilding of the new.
The fate of the picturesque old structure "created a huge schism in West Hollywood," Gierach says. By 2008, a lawsuit against West Hollywood by Save Tara, a group led by Allison, ended up before the California Supreme Court. Allison maintained that Heilman, Land and other council members rammed the project through by using subterfuge: The city leaders made agreements with housing developers before an environmental-impact report was even completed. Under law, an EIR must first go before the public for scrutiny. The California justices ruled in Allison's favor.
"It was an eye-opening experience I never wanted to experience," she says. And for many, it was a prime example of everything that has gone wrong. The enduring impression among park proponents is that the West Hollywood City Council is indistinguishable from the much-despised, backdoor–dealing L.A. County Board of Supervisors of 25 years ago.
Activist Buck says such chicanery feeds the low voter turnout plaguing the city. "People care, they get involved, and they go to meetings," he says. "Then they get shut down, they get marginalized, and they get disengaged" — complaints that are strikingly similar to ones a much younger Land and Heilman once leveled against the county government for ignoring citizens.
The need for extensive development of West Hollywood is often cited by Duran, Heilman and Land as necessary to pay for social services and to subsidize affordable housing.
In a city that is home to many a liberal, it's a politically astute argument. At one point, there was some truth to it.
In the early 1990s, according to former councilman Martin, who was a member of the budget subcommittee, the city faced tight budgets and some social-service cutbacks. "There was a feeling the city needed to expand its tax base," Martin says. At the time, West Hollywood generated revenues from "four pillars," as Martin calls them: a hotel-occupancy (or bed) tax, property taxes, sales taxes and parking fines.
Then, in the late 1990s, two big projects came along: the huge, $300 million Millennium complex on Sunset and the $80 million Gateway/Target mall, the latter so tightly squeezed onto land at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard that rush-hour traffic frequently grinds to a halt. Although the Millennium project stalled, other development took off. The City Council approved an 11-story hotel-and-condo complex at Sunset and Doheny Drive and the 10-story mixed-use project, Movietown Plaza, very near the gridlocked new Gateway mall.
Developers began demolishing affordable rental housing and quaint single-family homes and replacing them with luxury four- and five-story condominiums.
Around the same time, in 2001, the City Council threw out a zoning rule called "height averaging," which prevented developers from erecting anything taller than the average height on any given block.
Critics say the vote to upend the height-restriction rules opened the floodgates in West Hollywood. "Developers came sweeping in," says Elyse Eisenberg, chairwoman of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, "tearing down old housing stock" — often inexpensive units.
Councilman Duran isn't convinced that the end of height averaging made much of an impact, and Heilman describes the complex height-averaging rule as a "disaster" because it was difficult for developers and land speculators to apply.
Ironically, West Hollywood Rent Stabilization Commissioner Agassi Topchian, a former journalist from Moscow who has a day job with the city of Los Angeles, may soon have to vacate his own rent-stabilized apartment in West Hollywood. A developer plans to demolish it for a luxury condo. Topchian doesn't have much of a problem with it. "What can you do?" he asks.
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