Developers Richard Ressler, Shaul Kuba and Avi Shemesh of CIM Group last week sent their project manager, Kathleen Kim, to a Mid-City Neighborhood Council meeting to talk about the firm's controversial Lowe's development. Her most frequent responses to angry residents were "I'm not the one to ask" and "I'm not well versed" in the issues at hand.
The project, subsidized by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and purportedly intended to reduce "blight," has instead ruined a working-class Mid-City neighborhood adjacent to Venice Boulevard. The livability and lofty views of the racially mixed, ridgetop 16th Place enclave were wiped out by a Lowe's Home Improvement big-box store that now looms over Venice Boulevard.
Ressler, Kuba and Shemesh also plan to install, at the so-called MidTown Crossing development, lighted, billboard-sized signs that will advertise directly into the 16th Place neighbors' bedrooms.
Promised by the city Planning Commission in 2001 that the development would not cause environmental, aesthetic or other changes, the neighborhood is in a panic. Residents did not oppose development but agreed with city Planning Department staff, who strongly recommended that a 40-foot height limit ordinance be honored. Both the city planning staff and neighbors were ignored.
CIM Group's Lowe's building, whose vast, 68-foot-tall outer walls were erected in just hours in early June using "tilt-up" construction, has changed everything.
The view of the city and the Hollywood Hills is gone. The neighborhood is beset with vibration and traffic noise bouncing off the big structure. The homes have plummeted in value. And giant advertising signs are coming soon.
Kim was sent by CIM Group's three founders to "reach out" to these residents. She says CIM Group is well aware of their anger, having "read about it in the papers."
Local resident Nick Hounslow repeated a question that Kim skimmed over: Who at CIM Group could explain how their neighborhood was ruined by an inappropriately oversized retail development? "I'd love to have that question answered," Hounslow said.
Kim responded, to extensive guffaws from the gathered residents, "You know, I am not the person to make that — uh — to answer that."
When resident Estella Holeman suggested to Kim that the CIM Group project was indefensible because much of the big-box structure remains without a tenant, Kim appeared to ignore Holeman, saying: "So we have about five, six months to complete our finished look. So, when you're building a house, you put up a framework ..."
A frustrated Holeman interrupted: "I've built a house before! Across the street from Lowe's that's going up. With a view of the city — that no longer exists."
Holeman demanded: "So you say the studies were done in 2004, before you acquired the property? That you're completely unaware of those studies? So you really don't know how your building, your structure, impacts the community? Is that what you're saying?"
By meeting's end, Kim still had not given the roughly 40 residents a contact name at CIM Group.
In contrast to many residents, Mid-City Neighborhood Council president Allan DiCastro seemed ready to wash his hands of his neighbors' plight. He does not own a home on 16th Place. At the meeting he suggested that, in order to head off further inappropriate development by CIM Group — such as the advertising signage for which big, preliminary frameworks have already been installed — everyone should write letters to City Councilman Herb Wesson.
But Wesson is a major fan of the project — and of the big, lit-up advertising. He is among several city officials — including at the L.A. City Planning Department, Department of Building and Safety and the Community Redevelopment Agency — who have passed the buck repeatedly in the 16th Place mess. Both high-ranking and low-ranking officials say they don't know who is to blame for a retail project that has created dramatic environmental changes without an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Wesson's office has been avoiding Mid-City neighbors' calls for months, ever since the first Lowe's wall suddenly appeared. "When the walls on the south side began to be erected, many of us were calling," resident Robert Portillo says, "and we were all deferred."
Several attorneys, including David Bell, president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, say Mid-City residents made an understandable but major error: They believed City Hall's official claims that the project at the old Sears site would not alter the area's aesthetics or livability.
Residents did not understand that the only real hope of holding Los Angeles City Hall to that promise was to hire a lawyer and force through an EIR.
The City Council instead pushed through a Mitigated Negative Declaration — a document saying any negative effect on the Mid-City neighborhood would be so small that it could be easily fixed.
Worried residents appealed and demanded a full environmental study.
City officials rejected their appeal. The residents had no idea that they had just 30 days after that to legally challenge City Hall. And nobody at City Hall or at the Community Redevelopment Agency let them in on that fact.
"There was something wrong — we all kind of knew that, but we didn't know what to do," Portillo remembers. "I've really completely changed my whole mind about the idea that the city wants to partner with the community."
Well-known environmental attorney Sabrina Venskus warns, "If people think that there needs to be a full EIR, then they have to put evidence into the record, and say, 'Here's why we think there's going to be a more significant impact.' "
When the city rejected the evidence offered by area residents, Venskus says, "At that point, they should have sued."
Doug Carstens, a Chatten-Brown & Carstens attorney specializing in environmental law, agrees. "The big purpose of an EIR is to figure impacts and reduce them and eliminate them if possible. It could mean the project would not be allowed. More likely, it gets improved, so its impacts are less on the neighborhood."
Under the much lower standard, the Mitigated Negative Declaration, city officials can claim "without proof" that there will be little adverse impact, Carstens says. A Mitigated Negative Declaration "has a lot less public review — they basically just cut off public involvement in the process and can just go right ahead."
A solid-sounding agreement formally adopted in 2001 by the city Planning Commission said the proposed development in Mid-City "will not cast shadows on, or adversely affect the privacy, views or aesthetics of any residential property."
That was a meaningless promise.
Attorney Bell says elected leaders try to depict honest challengers of such projects as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). "The city complains about all these people who sue over these developments," he says. "But the fact is the only way you can guarantee [yourself] a seat at the table is to file a lawsuit."
City Hall officials have claimed repeatedly to be the victims of excessive litigation. But the MidTown Crossing fiasco involved no NIMBYs — just honest, hardworking residents who wanted input but who are about to lose their livable neighborhood.
The result, Bell says, is "a perfect example of the kind of precedent set by the city that makes it impossible to do anything but sue to protect your rights."
Now, 16th Place residents are exploring the last avenue open to them: hiring a lawyer and finding out what grounds they might use to sue the City of Los Angeles.