How a Ragtag Coalition Stops Skyscrapers in Hollywood
Loa Angeles environmental attorney Robert P. Silverstein.
Illustration by PJ McQuade
UPDATED Nov. 14: The California Supreme Court has denied Target's request to resume construction of its unfinished store on Sunset Boulevard while it appeals a Superior Court ruling that halted work there in mid-August. See details below.
Robert P. Silverstein must be one lucky man. He has faced down the City of Los Angeles, its teams of attorneys, its deep pockets. And five times in front of five different judges, Silverstein has prevailed in his legal battle against Mayor Eric Garcetti's push to transform Hollywood into a kind of dense, Century City–meets–Warner Center skyscraper zone.
Then last week, Mother Nature herself sided with the slight but fiery Silverstein.
An official "earthquake fault zone" map, released by the California State Geologist, officially determined that an active surface-rupture fault snakes from the eastern border of West Hollywood through Hollywood and Los Feliz to Atwater Village, running beneath scores of old, low-slung Hollywood buildings and parcels that investors have been buying — or eyeing — with hopes of clearing the land and bringing in more dense development.
But geologists say the Hollywood earthquake fault is powerful enough to split in half any building sitting atop it. The state's official geological map has thrown into legal doubt the future of a number of plans that now exist only on paper, including the Millennium Hollywood project, whose New York developers want to erect twin 35- and 39-story skyscrapers next to the Capitol Records building.
Attorneys who have faced Silverstein in court say luck has nothing to do with his victories in fighting City Hall.
Tim McOsker, former chief of staff to Mayor James Hahn and now a partner at Glaser Weil law firm, says, "When you're doing a project and you are the government and the developer, you are the one on the line — and you have to walk it straight. And while the procedures are clearly spelled out in law, there are so many tripping points — and Robert Silverstein just excels at finding them and knocking you off the tightwire."
It's not that Silverstein, who works in modest offices in Pasadena, is against smart development. But he's against Mayor Garcetti and the L.A. City Council, which for years has voted unanimously on 99 percent of council decisions — and which generally allows the 15 individual council members to act as unquestioned land-use overseers within their own districts.
"L.A. is not healthy government," Silverstein says. "Pasadena, for instance, has a far more fair, open and healthy process about what should be built, how and where. And look at how Pasadena is turning out — a vibrant, beautiful, livable place that gives the lie to the claims by Garcetti and the City Council that following our [land-use] rules stifles L.A."
If Garcetti succeeds in "upzoning" about 100 properties in Hollywood, pushing current height limits — which usually top out at three or four stories — to 10, 20 or even 45 stories, the land becomes inestimably valuable. In the business community, the assumption is that Garcetti will prevail.
That belief has fed a certain amount of land fever in Hollywood. Then-councilman Garcetti is widely assumed to have given a back-room nod to developers interested in erecting a skyscraper at historic Columbia Square, whose zoning next to a community of older homes allowed only a low-rise building. But a Las Vegas developer paid $66 million to a land owner who had bought Columbia Square for $15 million — and that turned out to be the right call, because the City Council then approved a 28-story tower on the land, more than 20 stories higher than allowed.
A third owner now controls the land and has trimmed down the controversial skyscraper to 20 stories.
Columbia Square is one of the few tall towers Silverstein was not asked to challenge. But it's hard to argue with the rest of Silverstein's track record:
• In mid-August, in a land-use battle juicy enough to make the nightly news, Silverstein successfully argued that Judge Richard L. Fruin Jr. should halt construction of a 74-foot-tall Target at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, on land zoned for 35 feet. The structure stands unfinished, thanks to what Fruin found were illegal justifications by City Hall to grant zoning exceptions creating a huge building that Silverstein says will "degrade the quality of life for those who call Hollywood home."
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Jeff Millman, a spokesman for Garcetti, lashed out, saying, "We disagree with Mr. Silverstein's fanatical comments."
Target spokeswoman Erika Winkels released a statement: "Target is taking steps to continue construction at the store site so our opening plans remain on schedule, but due to pending litigation, we are unable to share specific details. We are committed to the community and look forward to providing guests with the superior shopping experience, inspiring merchandise and great value that they've come to expect."
• In Silverstein's most far-reaching victory, last December Judge Allan J. Goodman rejected as "fatally flawed" a detailed Hollywood Community Plan designed by city planners and Garcetti's team to allow substantially larger buildings and skyscrapers. Goodman found that city officials had cited phony population projections — and ignored realistic census data — to justify a remaking of Hollywood. In fact, L.A. Weekly has shown that the population has actually badly slumped in response to gentrification and rising rents ("Hollywood's Urban Cleansing," Jan. 3, 2013).
• Representing the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association, Silverstein and his investigator proved to Judge Ann I. Jones that the city had trumped up findings that purported to show a 20-story tower at the corner of Hollywood
Sunset and Gower would have only modest effects on traffic and parking. Top city officials had stamped the name of the L.A. Department of Planning on the report. But it was actually created by consultants for the developer. Jones ruled that the City Council violated the constitutional due-process rights of residents — a rare finding against a city.
• At the W Hotel/condo development at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, Silverstein forced part of the project to be built around a historic building, during a heated battle in which city officials forced about 30 other property and business owners off their land using eminent domain. Silverstein saved Bernard Luggage, the only original property owner to survive.
• At the former Old Spaghetti Factory site at Sunset Boulevard and Gordon Street, Silverstein and neighbors sued after developer CIM Group demolished the 1924 historic building one night in 2012 without full permits and without saving the historic facade, as required. A partially inhabited 22-story residential tower now stands there. Judge James Chalfant has invalidated the project's city permits.
Now, Silverstein is getting ready to fight the imposing 8150 Sunset project, which would dwarf nearby Chateau Marmont. It appears that the proposed site of 8150 Sunset, which is opposed by the group Save Sunset Blvd., borders or overlaps the new "earthquake zone" created by the state geologist when it released its Hollywood quake fault map last week.
"The city has not done anything illegal at the 8150 project — yet," Silverstein says.
In each case he takes on, Silverstein represents community groups in Hollywood and East Hollywood. Groups such as Save Hollywood have grown far more organized in response to Garcetti's plans.
Silverstein says he wins because "we are repeatedly challenging the lack of integrity in the city — throughout the process, systemic abuses are under way. You need to accept that you cannot trust City Hall."
Now, with the earthquake fault appearing to help his cause, Silverstein has new worries: "Is the city now going to try to get around the facts and the law and Mother Nature and try to disregard everything the state has done for the public protection?"
Updated Nov. 14, 2014 at 1:42 p.m.:
The California Supreme Court has denied Target's request, supported by L.A. city officials, to resume construction on its store while it fights Judge Fruin's findings that the City Council and city planners allowed a series of illegal exceptions, resulting in a far larger and taller building than allowed under law.
According to the Supreme Court denial, which came on November 12 and was made public in recent hours, Target's appellate case before the Supreme Court is now closed.
Fruin's invalidations remain in place, in which he ruled illegal the special exceptions formally approved by a series of city officials amidst objections by community groups. The exceptions let Target get around laws that control big box buildings' heights, soaring rooflines and imposing sheer walls and instead force such building designs to be more open to the life of the street.
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