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Los Angeles CRA Creates Blight

Before: a view of the Hollywood Hills
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

On June 2, Mid-City resident Peter Porte walked into his backyard to greet the morning. From the ridge where his home sits, he looked out on the Hollywood Hills. On June 3, Porte walked into his backyard to greet the morning. He looked out on a towering concrete wall — an ugly surprise from the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency and private developer CIM Group.

His next-door neighbor on 16th Place, Robert Portillo, says, "The second we saw what was going on, we started making phone calls. Everybody was calling like crazy."

The before-and-after photos, which ran on KCAL 9/CBS 2 and at laweekly.com last week, are shocking — an example of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/L.A.) creating rather than removing blight in a residential neighborhood.

Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Planning Commission approved protective wording to assure that homes on 16th Place — which looked over the top of the 70-foot-tall Sears below their ridge — still would have sweeping views after a new development rose.

But this month CIM Group, in just hours, installed a "tilt-up" wall — the backside of a Lowe's Home Improvement Center and another big-box store. The wall towers far above the demolished 70-foot-tall Sears.

CIM Group's MidTown Crossing complex doesn't merely wipe out views, it ruins a neighborhood by creating a foreboding, prisonlike backdrop.

Critics who have seen the before-and-after shots say they are among the worst in the annals of L.A.'s density wars.

Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney specializing in land-use litigation against government, says it looks as if the neighborhood is "inside a penitentiary. ... It looks like the Berlin Wall ... obnoxious, offensive." Attorney David Bell, president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, calls it "crazy" and "really something."

Neighbor Denise White says she called Councilman Herb Wesson's office four times with no response. Since the wall appeared, White says, "I really can't stand my neighborhood."

This week, staffers for City Planner Michael LoGrande — LoGrande was unavailable — insisted they do not know what happened. They were still looking into it five days after the controversy was aired on TV.

LoGrande is the former city zoning administrator whose office approved 90 percent of developers' requests for variances and conditional-use permits. His approach allowed many outsized developments in and near residential neighborhoods.

How did it happen this time?

Ten years ago, on April 12, 2001, the L.A. City Planning Commission formally agreed that new development on the Sears site would "not cast shadows on or adversely affect the privacy, views or aesthetics of any residential property" nearby.

At the time, that development was to include a Home Depot and a Costco. It was restricted to 68 feet in height, two feet lower than the old Sears — as measured from the ground level along Pico Boulevard.

Somewhere along the way, that Planning Commission vote was ignored, reinterpreted — or quietly tossed out.

Edward Johnson, assistant chief deputy to Councilman Wesson, confirms to L.A. Weekly that "The correct height limit for the construction project is 68 feet from grade at Pico Boulevard."

Had CIM Group followed the rule, the roof of the Lowe's complex would be, as the Planning Commission agreed in 2001, "at approximately the same elevation" as the ridge of land on which the homes sit. Residents would look out over MidTown Crossing's roofline, just as they looked out over Sears.

That's not what was built on June 2.

The huge tilt-up structure was erected in such a way that it towers over 16th Place, and homeowners say they cannot see over the building's roof, even from their upstairs windows.*

In a twist that nobody at the CRA could explain to the Weekly, CIM Group — a close friend of politicians at City Hall, and a frequent recipient of subsidies from the CRA and City Council — was allowed to change the carefully hammered-out 2001 plan.

Wesson's aide Johnson, approached at City Hall by the Weekly, said he could only comment via a prepared statement. Johnson then sent a response in which he vaguely refers to a "lot line adjustment" granted to CIM Group in June 2006 that was "not appealed" by neighbors.

But a day later Johnson emailed the Weekly to concede that his office didn't know if the "adjustment" was how CIM Group got around the Planning Commission's 2001 vote.

Wesson pushed in May for City Council approval of a $19.2 million loan to help wealthy CIM Group finish MidTown Crossing. Only council members Dennis Zine and Paul Krekorian criticized the loan.

Neighbors all along 16th Place are baffled and furious. None was informed that the original deal, and their quality of living, were in jeopardy. Porte says with disgust: "Why would we appeal when [we believed] there was no problem?"

Redevelopment critic and attorney Christopher Sutton says it's "most likely to be a CRA screwup." He speculates, "Somebody gave the developer permission — and didn't [read] the original agreement."

David Bloom, public affairs consultant to CRA/L.A. chief Christine Essel, huffs, "You're asking the wrong department. This is an issue between the Planning Department and Building & Safety." He adds, "I heard it was only one couple [on 16th Place] that's upset."

That is news to people on 16th Place, who turned out en masse to pose for an "after" photo of their ruined neighborhood.

Yet to hear the Planning Department's explanation of what went so wrong, nothing has.

Claudia Rodriguez, neighborhood liaison for LoGrande, in a prepared statement via email, says that when the project's "entitlements" were approved 10 years ago, including the 68-foot height limit, it was all done with "community input."

Rodriguez appeared unaware that maneuvers since that time had negated the 2001 Planning Commission vote.*

CIM Group says merely, "The project is in full compliance with the entitlements."

Ten years ago, Portillo and others attended numerous Planning Department meetings to ensure the environmental quality of their street — including its views — would be unharmed. For years he had been at ease because of "Number 44" — the Planning Commission's finding that a 68-foot-tall building "will not be materially detrimental to the public welfare, or injurious to the property or improvements in the same zone and vicinity."

Nobody knows how much their homes have plummeted in value in the past four weeks. And at City Hall, confusion seems the order of the day.

Wesson's aide confirmed by email to the Weekly that the 68-foot building must be measured from ground level at Pico Boulevard, but also declared, "The developer is well within their rights to construct a building at 68 feet and along Venice Boulevard."

Portillo says, "There is something really wrong about this."

Porte says residents have contacted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and even Lowe's president, but, "We really are being met with indifference."

Neighbor Nick Hounslow spoke to potential attorneys to represent residents, and informed everyone in an email that City Hall "won't initiate anything until we make the first move" by filing an appeal.

Porte, still sounding in shock, says this is his first home. He bought it, he says, "because of the view."

* Correction: The original version of this story stated that the Lowe's Home Improvement complex was built on a slope 30 feet high along Venice Boulevard. In fact, the ground near Venice was excavated and the building was not placed on a slope.   

 

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