A major portion of Los Angeles City Hall's skyscraper transformation of Hollywood — a dream vilified as a nightmare by critics who fought to stop multiple high-rise towers approved by the pro-density City Council — could instead be derailed by Mother Nature.
Los Angeles sits on about 100 quake faults, active and inactive. Only a couple dozen, however, are capable of rupturing the surface. Geologists believe that people in buildings atop those faults face catastrophic death and disaster.
Such faults can "break the foundations and crack the building," State Geologist John Parrish says. Geologists believe buildings could crack in half.
City planners are feverishly granting approval to big projects directly above and near the active fault, even ignoring shouts from neighbors warning them it was illegal and risked lives. One hipster complex, 6200 Blvd, is under construction and will include more than 500 luxury units, massive retail and lots of parking. Its northern structure will edge Carlos Avenue, the border of the active zone. Planners also gave initial nods to 6230 Yucca, a 16-story tower planned right over the fault, and, kitty-corner to that, a hotel at 1800 N. Argyle next to the fault.
Geologists, skyscraper critics and community activists are abuzz over the fact that city leaders, rushing to approve these projects on behalf of wealthy developers, ignored L.A.'s earthquake history and failed to diagnose the extent of the Hollywood fault, which they knew to be active.
Instead, the Department of Planning, City Planning Commission and City Council — led by now-Mayor Eric Garcetti — plopped a major-density development plan, designed to lure families and office workers, partially within the fault's long-suspected borders.
Now opponents of the skyscrapers have obtained March 2012 emails that they say show a subordinate of Department of Building and Safety interim general manager Raymond Chan told Chan he'd met with developers to discuss the possibility that the fault line runs beneath the project. The emails also show that an attorney for the developer informed Chan he was privy to discussions that indicated a California Geological Survey map showed the potential fault ran right below the Millennium site.
No city or county in California can erect new buildings on top of an active fault due to the potential for great loss of life, under the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act. Moreover, all owners of old buildings on such faults are required to disclose that fact to any new buyer.
Hollywood's newly elected city councilmember, Mitch O'Farrell, made a curious comment about these restrictions, approved by the Legislature in 1972 — and strengthened since then to save lives when catastrophe inevitably hits.
Last week, O'Farrell pooh-poohed the Alquist-Priolo Act in interviews, saying that worrying too much about where active faults might lurk in L.A. could put a crimp in development here.
Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney representing more than 40 groups that are fighting construction of the Millennium twin skyscrapers, discovered geological maps proving that the L.A. City Council and Millennium's developer left out of the Environmental Impact Report crucial data, which suggest that Hollywood's active fault appears to travel below the project.
Silverstein says O'Farrell's steadfast support for the skyscrapers is "going to be an albatross around his neck. The community will remember his betrayal. His first opportunity to show real leadership and real backbone was wasted."
Attention also is turning to Christopher Jeffries, co-founder of Millennium Partners, who sold his two-story Ritz-Carlton New York condo to Steve Wynn for $70 million. Jeffries failed to fund sufficient geological and seismic studies of the Hollywood fault — until thousands of people grew angry last week about the suspected fault beneath his project.
Then the developers suddenly announced they would pay for belated trench digging to look at the Hollywood fault.
Another key figure in the controversy is Philip Aarons, Jeffries' partner, who worked as an assistant to the mayor of New York in the 1970s.
At the rowdy public hearing several days ago, when the City Council ignored the warnings of State Geologist Parrish and approved the Millennium towers, Aarons declared: "Millennium Hollywood is first and foremost a preservation project."
His comment was met by a burst of laughter from the packed audience at the City Council meeting.
"It's not our interest to develop a project without addressing any and all seismic concerns. We couldn't and we won't," Aarons insisted.
The suspected active Hollywood fault zone is big. Its rough boundaries are Franklin Avenue to the north (the suspected zone ranges well above Franklin in places) and Carlos Avenue to the south (imagine a parallel line half a block north of Hollywood Boulevard). In places, it ranges west of Las Palmas Avenue and east of Gower Street.
Many buildings were erected long before anyone realized the danger. People in this dense, increasingly revitalized area tend to have little idea of what some geologists believe: If a 7-magnitude quake hits, they might as well be on the San Andreas Fault.
Faults seldom follow a single line. They exist as a series of parallel fractures, according to Parrish. "It's possible the [skyscraper] project is not only within the fault zone but also sits right on a fault line," he says. "If the project is on top of a fault line, it will have to be removed."
His investigation will not only determine the fate of the proposed tallest buildings ever constructed in Hollywood — the Millennium towers — but also the fate of other developments worth billions, which City Hall's avidly pro-density elected leaders envisioned atop the fault zone.
Geological studies verified the Hollywood fault as active a few decades ago — but not the precise location of its "fault traces" — active fingers of the fault.
"The fault zone is approximately 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet wide, slightly wider than what previous studies show," Parrish says.
Some maps on which the state relies were created by USC earth sciences professor James Dolan in 1997 and geologists Richard Crook and Richard J. Proctor in 1992.
The 35- and 39-story towers would essentially surround the iconic Capitol Records building, forever altering Hollywood's skyline. They would contain 492 residences, a hotel, office space, a sports club and retail.
"On Dolan's map, we're seeing the fault going through the west site" — under one of the two skyscrapers, Parrish says. "The east site [of the Millennium project] touches the edge of the fault zone."
Crook and Proctor's map shows two inferred fault lines running directly below the skyscraper project.
None of this was mentioned in the thick, detailed Millennium project EIR embraced by then–councilman Eric Garcetti and O'Farrell, and approved by the City Council.
Political fur will fly if the state geologist determines that these two huge towers — and many more the City Council is eager to see built in the immediate area — would sit atop an active fault capable of causing a 7-magnitude quake, creating a real potential for catastrophic loss of life.
If that is confirmed, the roles played by Jeffries, Aarons, O'Farrell, Garcetti and others, who pushed the project through the approval process without seriously studying a known fault, will be scrutinized.
Parrish, who said he did not want to express his opinion, says the developer should have included "additional information," such as James Dolan's map and Crook and Proctor's study.
Arlene van Breems, who has lived in Hollywood for 43 years, is one of the hundreds of opponents distressed by the way the project has been rushed through. "This is a travesty," she says. "They're going to develop two New York towers."