How did the looming new Lowe's Home Improvement Center complex in Mid-City turn into the Lowe's Home Wrecking Center — and is the new building at MidTown Crossing legal?
Six weeks ago, CIM Group erected a massive Lowe's complex on Venice Boulevard at Pico Boulevard that drastically changed the aesthetics and livability of the community. Despite legal protections against environmentally damaging development, nobody at Los Angeles City Hall can explain why no Environmental Impact Report was created or whether a binding Planning Commission vote to protect the neighborhood was thrown out — or perhaps accidentally ignored.
Using a tilt-up construction method, CIM Group in a matter of hours on June 2 erected the 68-foot-tall Lowe's, building it so close to Venice Boulevard that the ridge-top homes across the street lost their historic views of the Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood Sign.
Instead, the neighborhood now looks upon the concrete backside of the Lowe's development dubbed MidTown Crossing. Homes in the ethnically mixed, working-class neighborhood plummeted in value overnight, and the residents are seeking a lawyer.
Former City Councilman Nate Holden oversaw lengthy negotiations that resulted in a 2001 Planning Commission vote to protect the neighborhood's livability — and, particularly, to protect its expansive views.
Contacted this week by L.A. Weekly, Holden reacted to the controversy by denying that the neighbors once had terrific views over the roof of the previous building on the site, the 60-year-old Sears Building.
"I can't believe you can't see around it!" Holden said of the towering new MidTown Crossing complex. "The homeowners must not have been there when the Sears Building was there — they would remember they couldn't see over that, either."
But that's not true. The city's own documents confirm what numerous furious residents say: The ridge-top neighborhood on 16th Place for 60 years looked easily over the top of the Sears Building.
In its 2001 Determination of the City Planning Commission, when the project was still proposed as a Costco/Home Depot and not a Lowe's, the city agreed to protect the 16th Place community from adverse environmental changes.
The document assured that "the roof of the proposed Costco/Home Depot building would be at approximately the same elevation as the [land] of the residential lots to the south" on 16th Place.
Further, the Planning Commission promised that the "68-foot height of the project will not result in any new impacts on the residents of these buildings. Specifically the ... building will simply replace the over-60-year-old Sears Building." The new building would "not cast shadows on or adversely affect the privacy, views or aesthetics of any residential property," the city agreed.
The city broke that promise. The CIM Group moved its new Lowe's complex south, about 200 feet closer to the 16th Place community than Sears had been, wiping out the line of sight that gave the ridge-top street its views of the distant Hollywood Hills.
Holden slammed the neighborhood for forcing the Planning Department to agree to numerous conditions for the development back in 2001, saying, "By the time I was finished accommodating them, the builder took a walk!"
He says he's so flabbergasted by complaints that the Lowe's at MidTown Crossing has fundamentally harmed and altered the Mid-City neighborhood that, although he lives in the Marina, "I'm going to go see it!"
Confusion reigns not just among former elected officials closely tied to the project, such as Holden, but inside Los Angeles City Hall.
Three boxes of records given to the Weekly by the City Planning Department — described by Claudia Rodriguez, neighborhood liaison for City Planner Michael LoGrande, as the key documents in the case — provide no clues about who allowed the new Lowe's to be built so close to the homes. Residents cannot see over the new building's top, even from their second-story windows.
Nor has the city been able to produce, despite numerous requests from the neighbors and the Weekly, any evidence of a legal notification to residents that the formal protections they were promised 10 years ago were in danger of being thrown out.
There was no warning that the project would result in the worst-case scenario they had fought hard to avoid.
Peter Porte, one of several residents trying to get a coherent answer from City Planner LoGrande or their current city councilman, Herb Wesson, says, "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a cover-up, since there's no documentation of how this was allowed. But maybe it was just a terrible, terrible mistake" in which somebody dropped the ball.
Ironically, the Lowe's complex is an "anti-blight" project of the Community Redevelopment Agency. That huge agency, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year subsidizing developers in an effort to improve downtrodden areas, has passed the buck since the controversy erupted.
David Bloom, public affairs consultant for CRA chief Christine Essel, says, "If Planning and Zoning laid out a bunch of rules and chose not to give all the [rules] to Building and Safety," that is not the fault of the CRA.
Rather than get to the bottom of the weeks-long controversy over its project in working-class Mid-City, the CRA's official position continues to be that it has no idea what is going on.
Says Bloom: "If you want to find out about that stuff, you are asking the wrong department. It's an issue between" the Planning Department and the Department of Building and Safety.
But officials in those departments could not explain what happened, repeatedly citing the fact that the new structure is 68 feet tall, about the same height as the highest roof on the old, multistory Sears Building. But the 70-foot-tall Sears was set far closer to Pico Boulevard and residents could easily see over it.
Planning officials will not — or cannot — explain how the backside of Lowe's was allowed to be moved to within 10 feet of Venice Boulevard, some 200 feet south of the Sears and far closer to the homes. And David Lara, of Building and Safety, repeats that his department "made sure it complies, as per plan."
One former resident of 16th Place, Daniel Flores, who now lives about two miles away, suspected something might be amiss when CIM Group bought the land from the previous developer and began moving forward under the same conditions approved in 2001, but with a Lowe's instead of a Home Depot.
Flores saw crews working on the land and says he sent an email to an employee of CIM Group, vice president Phil Friedl, asking Friedl to come over to the ridge on 16th Place and point out how tall the roof of the new Lowe's complex was going to appear from the homes. He says Friedl ignored his email. "He was across the street!" Flores says. "I just wanted him to come up and show me what would happen to my view."
But the persistent Flores says he eventually tracked down CIM employee J.J O'Brien, who told him he "would lose the entire view."
When Flores tried to find out how this was possible from Planning Department employees Daniel Green and Robert Janovici, who signed off on the 2001 document agreeing that the neighborhood livability and environment would not be affected, Flores says, he got a "poor attitude" and no answers.
In a 2004 complaint letter to then-Planning Director Con Howe, Flores explained that Green "was ignoring my request for information" and Janovici "seemed completely reluctant (in spirit) in providing me with any help and suggested I contact my City Council for help."
After several months of stonewalling from officials at City Hall, he says, and with the scant information he gathered, Flores came to the conclusion that the 16th Place views of the Hollywood Hills would be preserved, "but I'm probably not going to see Pico Boulevard [or] the glass store, and that's fine. They're not a big deal."
Of what happened instead, Flores says, "It's shocking. It really is."
Flores was at the MidTown Crossing groundbreaking ceremony a few years ago, before neighbors had any inkling of what was to come. Councilman Wesson attended and was openly excited about the CIM Group project.
Today, Wesson's office claims to hold no responsibility for what happened because Wesson was elected in 2005, years after the 2001 Planning Commission vote to protect the neighborhood.
"I hate to say it," Flores says of his old neighborhood, but "wait until they see the signs" that Wesson eagerly supported — huge, lighted billboards that will be imposed upon the 16th Place neighborhood.
"It's adding insult to insult," Flores says. "You're talking 90 feet [wide] signage ... 30 feet high," and lit up until 2 a.m.
Gerald Silver, a widely known veteran of local wars against overdevelopment in Encino, who sympathizes with the homeowners, says the dismal truth is that more often than not, if you trust Los Angeles city documents, you will learn the hard way: "That's how life is," says Silver. "It's just how things work. It's their responsibility to check. ... The bottom line is, who protects your interest?"
The local Mid-City Neighborhood Council has been reluctant to get involved, with many in the community excited about the new MidTown Crossing and not wanting to do anything to rock the boat.
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Allan DiCastro, president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Council, says, "I told the group when they came in" for the council's backing, "You need to find what's wrong. Ten years have passed. ... The community has been fighting to get this [development] done."
DiCastro suggests, "What if there was a hearing and no one showed up?"
But that's not what happened, according to more than a dozen angry current and former residents of 16th Place. Flores, the former neighbor who moved away a year ago, says bitterly, "No, not at all. No notification."
Patrick Range McDonald contributed to this report.