By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By the mid-2000s, the city's budget revenues were bulging, increased by nearly 50 percent thanks in large part to the now-burst real estate bubble. But expenditures on social programs have stagnated for years, vastly surpassed by an exploding city bureaucracy.
In 1985, according to Social Services Manager Daphne Davis, West Hollywood spent $1.5 million on social services. Today, the tab is $3.5 million for various programs, including medical, senior and HIV/AIDS, serving nearly the same population size — 35,716 — as in 1985.
Correcting for inflation, $1.5 million spent in 1985 equals $3 million today. Thus it's false when City Council members claim that by embracing big development projects, they've brought in new dollars to grow social programs.
So where is the City Council really directing money from its much-expanded budget? To "wages and fringes" for city-government employees. Payroll costs grew from about $1.3 million in 1985 to $24.5 million in 2009, outstripping the U.S. inflation rate during Heilman's reign — almost 10 times over.
"Every [development project] is 'wrapped up' in social services and affordable housing" as the justification for its approval, says Martin. City Council members sell West Hollywood residents on accepting the congestion and construction, such as the hotel-and-condo project on Sunset and Doheny, "but people don't pay attention" to what they get back. "The money is mostly going toward payroll, health care and pensions" for city employees.
Utilizing a tool called a "development agreement," the City Council now routinely gets around zoning restrictions in its pursuit of bigger buildings. Under this scheme, the developer agrees to a deal that is in the "best interest" of the city — a vague notion sometimes involving the developer pledging money to city coffers. In one deal, $700,000 was to be paid by developers of a five-story tower of residences and shops that would loom above the Palm restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. When residents sued, the city agreed to get $1 million from the developer, but to only slightly reduce the project's size. "Any local [zoning] rules go out the window with a 'development agreement,' " says Steve Smith, a planning commissioner for 12 years who left under pressure because, he says, he was too hard on developers. West Hollywood zoning maps are increasingly meaningless documents "neighbors rely upon to maintain the character of their neighborhoods, [that] can't be relied upon," says Smith.
This is in some ways a cliquish city, where an unfamiliar face at a public meeting can prompt a city official to lean into his microphone and ask, "Who are you?" City officials, unaccustomed to detailed outside queries about city policy, claim to have no definitive list of their development agreements to provide to the public.
West Hollywood City Clerk Tom West says they don't "maintain a list." He handed the Weekly a makeshift record from the past 25 years. It appears to show no development agreement deals from 1985 until the early 1990s — and a flurry of proposed development agreements since 2007.
The agreements, quietly hammered out between developers and elected leaders, are no small thing. One deal seeks to eventually demolish the landmark Sunset Strip venue House of Blues — to erect another outsized hotel-and-condo project awkwardly dubbed Sunset Time.
"I feel like our city is now for sale," says longtime resident Jeanne Dobrin, a feisty 89-year-old who religiously attends City Council meetings, sometimes clad in a faux-fur coat.
Dobrin, a former Realtor, championed the lawsuit over the Palm restaurant tower, and is viewed by City Hall watchers as a land-use expert. "One of the reasons we became a city was because we wanted to keep development from getting out of hand," she says. Instead, "The No. 1 issue is runaway development and the city going along with it."
With their extensive use of development agreements, the council members are practicing a form of often decried, secretive government that is substantially out of line with progressive values. "Essentially," says California Common Cause Executive Director Feng, "you have created a system where the wealthy get to go around the law while everyone else has to live by a different set of rules."
Smith and D'Amico also point to the example of the new library being built on San Vicente Boulevard, across the street from the famous blue Pacific Design Center. "There's a 'For Sale' sign on this city," says Smith, "and that sign hangs on the library."
The anger arises because some residents believe major donations are flowing from developers into the library, Heilman's dream civic project. They are the same developers, critics allege, who want to erect huge buildings. The donations process has been shrouded in secrecy, with West Hollywood Library Fund Campaign Manager LouAnne Greenwald refusing to provide details about the library donations, saying they are private and confidential (under California law, nonprofits can refuse to divulge their income sources).
Web site weholibraryfund.org shows that real estate players in West Hollywood are prominent on the library board of directors: Christopher Bonbright, chair and CEO of Ramsey-Shilling Commercial Real Estate Services; James L. Arnone, land-use attorney at Latham & Watkins; Jeffrey Seymour, president of Seymour Consulting Group, a lobbying outfit used by developers; and Jason Illoulian, principal and attorney at Ivy Property Group, an emerging development firm in West Hollywood.