Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant has stopped the Millennium Hollywood twin skyscrapers project in its tracks, finding that top city officials illegally ignored required parts of the Environmental Impact Review process and warning that the project could dramatically worsen traffic on the Hollywood Freeway and in the surrounding neighborhood.
His ruling means the investors cannot get any building permits from the city. The judge found that top Los Angeles elected and appointed officials ignored Caltrans' warnings about the dual towers' effects on traffic heading on and off the often backed-up ramps on the nearby 101 freeway.
In this latest of several major court losses involving Mayor Eric Garcetti's controversial dream of bringing tall towers and heavier density to low-slung Hollywood, Chalfant lectured city leaders, saying:
“The congestion of freeways in L.A. is subject to review because it's so terrible, and anything that may make it worse needs to be examined. … The issue is whether you need to follow the provisions of the responsible agency, Caltrans. And the language and scholarly work on the issue says overwhelmingly 'yes.' … There were many aspects Caltrans wanted you to look at, that you didn't look at."
Instead of including in its Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, the required traffic studies conducted by Caltrans, Garcetti and the City Council chose to press forward with their own freeway traffic studies.
Judge Chalfant says this was illegal.
In fact, he ruled, the city is not allowed to conduct studies on freeway traffic using its own definitions and methods. Freeway traffic is the responsibility of experts at Caltrans, specifically, and not of the Los Angeles Planning Department or any other city department.
The judge's ruling sends Millennium's two multimillionaire partners, who are based in Manhattan, back to the drawing boards and is a major victory for dozens of groups from inside and outside the community who see history-rich Hollywood as a poor choice for a skyscraper makeover.
Many others in Hollywood, including the local Chamber of Commerce, do in fact back Garcetti's plan for heavy density there. They argue that far more people should be encouraged to live and work in Hollywood to help transform Hollywood into a transit-oriented community where people heavily utilize the Red Line subway built along Hollywood Boulevard.
But that side's support for skyscrapers doesn’t change the fact that city leaders acted illegally, according to the court, in rushing the Millennium project along and ignoring state traffic data.
It's not known if the skyscraper developers will try again.
The judge is now requiring the Millennium investors to reconstruct, from the beginning, a new Environmental Impact Report that includes detailed specifics about what their twin skyscraper complex will include. The original EIR the city approved suffered from a lack of specific information about the project itself, specifics that will have to be outlined in the new process.
Los Angeles leaders flatly ignored repeated claims from exasperated Caltrans officials that the EIR failed to include proper traffic-monitoring data.
The Millennium was supposed to be a huge development in the center of Hollywood. It would add a 35-story and a 39-story tower (and a whole lot of parking) to a community where longtime height and zoning rules have allowed only a single skyscraper-ish tower, 20 stories high, which has long sat at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street.
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The project has been controversial from the get-go thanks to intense opposition to tall towers in the heavily residential, tourist-destination area.
The Millennium's backers were further rattled by the fact that, according to the California Geological Survey, the skyscraper project site sits literally on top of an active fault line capable of producing a magnitude 7 earthquake.
Attorney Robert Silverstein, who’s responsible for putting the brakes on several other City Council–approved Hollywood plans and developments that judges have ruled illegal — such as the unfinished Target store at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue — led the charge against what he and many community groups view as overdevelopment.
“The abuse of power and the violation of the public trust by the mayor and City Council in the Millennium case is truly unprecedented,” Silverstein said. “The fact that not only 40 different community groups and every Hollywood neighborhood council opposed this project but also two California state agencies opposed this project says a lot.”