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How the Hollywood Fault Made Millennium's Future Uncertain, and L.A. a Laughingstock 

Thursday, Sep 19 2013
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Note: An unedited version of this story was inadvertently published online on Sept. 18. This is the edited version. See factual correction at end.

The Los Angeles City Council rushed through its approval of the Millennium skyscrapers in Hollywood amidst fiery opposition, ignoring an unusual warning from California’s top geologist that a major earthquake fault study had to be undertaken before permits could legally be issued.

Now, other killer fault–riddled California cities are marveling at the blunder that has prompted Hollywood residents to sue the city of L.A. and Millennium Hollywood LLC for knowingly planning 35- and 39-story towers atop a suspected “rupture fault” capable of opening the Earth, splitting buildings in half — and causing massive death.

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The Hayward Fault runs 50 miles through the East Bay, near the Oakland Hills and through the Oakland Zoo and Mills College. Like the Hollywood Fault, it’s a rupture fault that can rip open the Earth — not just violently shake it like typical dangerous faults in L.A. It’s a “known killer” that produced a 7-magnitude quake in 1868.

“If a project like [Millennium] were proposed in Oakland, before a decision could be made on the project, we would require geological study to pinpoint exactly where the active fault is within this larger fault zone,” says Ed Manasse, Oakland’s strategic planning manager.

In fact, under the state’s Alquist-Priolo Act, to avoid catastrophic deaths from rupture quakes, no new buildings intended for human use can be built atop, or within 50 feet of, a rupture fault.

In the city of Hayward, Gary Lepori of the Development Services Department draws a parallel between the behavior by L.A. leaders in not abiding by the Alquist-Priolo Act and the bizarre hubbub in Benidorm, Spain, when news broke in August about a 47-story skyscraper built without elevators. Reports of that civic screwup later turned out to be untrue.

Still, Lepori ventured, “Do those kinds of mistakes happen to a degree in Hollywood? They let things get too far before they looked at stuff. Make sure it’s safe.”

It’s not yet clear who let the Millennium get too far, or why.

In July, Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointee, powerful State Geologist John Parrish, alerted L.A. City Council president Herb Wesson that the Millennium Towers might fall directly within Hollywood’s “rupture fault” zone — a geologically treacherous area known to geologists but not the public. It is bounded, roughly, by Las Palmas Avenue, Gower Street, Franklin Avenue and Carlos Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard.

Like the Hayward Fault, it is capable of a killer, 7-magnitude quake. Yet its existence has remained a virtual secret among civic boosters and city leaders bent on remaking the aging area — and luring thousands of new residents and office workers.

One $200 million residential-retail complex, Blvd 6200, is half-finished. It may well rest — illegally and precariously — within 50 feet of the fault along Carlos Street.

Experts don’t know what to make of the antics at City Hall. “If a building sits on top of a fault that breaks the surface,” Parrish says, “it’s very dangerous … because the ground is splitting in two.”

For years, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then–Hollywood City Councilman Eric Garcetti and city planning director Michael LoGrande — cheered on by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce — have pressed for high-rise density in Hollywood.

Then, this year, lawyers hired by residents fighting the Millennium skyscrapers obtained stunning emails showing that L.A. City Geologist Dana Prevost met with a Millennium project team in 2012 and discussed the fact that a quake fault might run right through the controversial twin skyscraper site at Vine and Yucca streets.

Prevost never went public about this knowledge. In fact, the emails showed, Prevost privately admitted to the Millennium people that he’d already “granted one modification in the past on another project that allowed them to build right adjacent to the fault line,” probably referring to Blvd 6200.

In Hayward, Oakland and 103 other California cities containing more than 5,000 miles of active fault traces, the state is responsible for mapping and zoning their suspected faults.

“All of those [cities] are very good about honoring those zones and enforcing special studies for faults within the zones,” State Geologist Parrish says.

In Oakland, officials begin by definitively determining if a project for human occupancy is within a fault zone, then making sure it’s at least 50 feet from any rupture fault.

“If we don’t know if it’s [on top of an actual] fault, then the city of Oakland wouldn’t be able to approve the project,” Manasse stresses. “Individual cities can make certain parts of the regulations more strict, but they can’t make them less strict.”

It is the state’s responsibility to map such earthquake faults and zones, as it has done meticulously statewide. Confusion reigns over why a definitive fault zone was not drawn for Hollywood — a dense, old community perched atop a potential time bomb — while rural areas facing far lesser threats were fully studied and zoned.

Years passed, and Villaraigosa, LoGrande and Councilman Garcetti arrived on the scene, pushing their density dreams for Hollywood with far taller, bigger buildings containing far more people.

Using incomplete boundaries and fault lines mapped years ago in Hollywood by state geologists, city officials started guessing where the fault did and did not go, approving  projects — and failing to conduct strictly required, geological site investigations to make certain no new buildings were erected atop or within 50 feet of the fault.

Then, in July, having no idea of the precise location of the fault, the L.A. City Council blindly voted, 13-0, to approve the twin skyscrapers on a block that’s suspected to fall within or next to the earthquake zone.

The existing state geological maps show dotted instead of solid lines where the quake zone is believed to run below Franklin, Las Palmas, Carlos, Gower and other streets.

Now, Parrish and a state team have stepped in to investigate and map the Hollywood Earthquake Zone and its faults.

As the Weekly reported in July, three other big projects next to or atop the suspected rupture fault have already been granted various approvals by city officials:

—The elegant, massive Blvd 6200 complex with more than 500 luxury residential units and extensive retail between Carlos and Hollywood Boulevard near Argyle Avenue is partly built and may not be fit for habitation if the state discovers that it’s within 50 feet of the rupture fault. If that’s the case, the cost for lawsuits — which might be borne by city taxpayers — could rise into the stratosphere. Of course, the developers could be liable, too. In their environmental impact report, the Blvd 6200 developers insisted that the nearest fault zone to their project by the Pantages Theater was the Newport-Inglewood Fault -- five miles away in Culver City.  

—6230 Yucca St., a 16-story mixed-use tower of apartments and retail, appears to sit illegally inside the fault zone. It has not been built but was approved by the apparently clueless, avidly pro-density, L.A. City Planning Commission.

—Argyle Hotel at 1800 N. Argyle, a 16-story hotel with 225 hotel rooms, 6,000 square feet of meeting space and 3,000 square feet of residential space, appears to sit next to the fault zone. It has not been built but was approved by the apparently equally clueless City Planning Department.

Aaron Epstein, 83, has lived in Hollywood since 1934; he owns the charming old Artisan’s Patio on Hollywood Boulevard (City Historic Landmark No. 453) and pitched in $5,000 to sue the city and developer to stop Millennium from being built. His father, Louis Epstein, owned famed Pickwick Bookshop on the boulevard, now gone.

“What upsets me is our … elected officials at City Hall,” Epstein says. “We have six neighborhood council organizations surrounding the project. Five of them have voted against the project.” He notes that just one neighborhood council wanted the skyscrapers — the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council, dominated by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, whose vice president, Laurie Goldman, is a consultant to the Millennium developers.

Epstein is fed up with City Hall, and says Hollywood’s District 13 City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell is “representing an out-of-state developer,” and if so should “resign from office. He has no business saying he is a representative when he is just voting for whoever makes the biggest contribution to his political campaign.”

Correction: An earlier online version of this story misreported that the Millennium developers produced an EIR claiming that the nearest fault zone to their project was five miles away in Culver City. In fact, that claim was made by the developers of Blvd 6200, which was misidentified as 6200 Blvd. 

Reach the writer at gzheng@laweekly.com

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