The Human Teardown
CITY CONTROLLER LAURA CHICK’S scathing audit this week shows an out-of-control Department of Building and Safety that allows developers to have their way with Los Angeles at the expense of public safety.
Keeping with the harsh tone of the draft audit obtained two weeks ago by the L.A. Weekly, Chick found building inspectors who are pressured by higher-ups and others to avoid writing orders to correct code violations. Sometimes, when inspectors do issue orders, repeat offenders thumb their noses without penalty. Chick pledged to “stay inside the department” while reforms are put in place, with the mayor’s support. “There are problems just waiting to erupt,” she said. “Whether pressure [to avoid enforcement] is political, comes from developers or from supervisors, all of that is wrong, and it should stop.”
Evidence abounds that the situation is out of hand. On Monday, as Chick was releasing her audit, more than 40 McMansions were under construction in a 10-block area of Laurel Canyon, where neighbors have screamed themselves hoarse over what they see as violations of city laws and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At four of the building sites, neighbors observed construction under way on Sunday, a violation of city law.
In a gesture of too-little, too-late, General Manager Andrew Adelman began promising to halt previously approved construction projects and send them back to the building department for environmental review. Deputy Mayor John Brady was still recovering from his own tour of Laurel Canyon and dealing with e-mails from residents insisting that their concerns were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
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And Adelman’s newly retained private attorney had just finished asking an Orange County judge for more time to resolve an illegal addition to a Westside home that has Adelman facing contempt charges.
How did the building department get so far out of control? And is the general manager the only one responsible for the mess? Those who know Adelman well, including his ex-wife, say that he acts on orders from City Hall.
In response to Chick’s audit, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a letter to the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners instructing them to submit a corrective plan and address her recommendations, which include reducing a backlog of code violations, better training of building inspectors and coordinating with city planners, police and the city attorney. The mayor’s spokesman Joe Ramallo said, “The mayor regards Laura Chick’s audit as a road map for change.”
The public thrashing of the embattled Adelman had begun. Just last week, Deputy Mayor Bud Ovrom saw the department’s performance through a more positive lens. “The general manager is doing a good job. There have been improvements in a department that needed it.” In many ways, perhaps, Adelman was just doing what he was hired to do in 1997, when former mayor Richard Riordan brought him on board to speed permit approvals and improve communications with City Hall. He did. In 2002, for instance, Adelman met with developer and accused campaign-money launderer Mark Abrams — right after Abrams donated generously to then-mayor Jim Hahn’s antisecession campaign. Soon Abrams had his permits. By Monday, however, Ramallo was distancing himself from the deputy mayor’s statements. “Mayor Villaraigosa’s ethical expectations are clear. Anyone who is not toeing the line will face the most serious consequences.”
Chick’s audit comes as no surprise to employees who have complained for years that Adelman has run a fee-driven regime that champions development at the expense of regulation, crushing dissent through intimidation and alleged manipulation of civil-service rules. In addition to a review of employee lawsuits, the Weekly has obtained letters written over the past several years to Villaraigosa and Hahn that describe a department run amok.
RESIDENTS FROM PACIFIC PALISADES to Glassell Park have brought detailed complaints to the attention of city leaders for years about the “mansionization” of Los Angeles’ hillside communities. They saw no action. E-mails and letters reviewed by the Weekly show persistent allegations of CEQA violations and city laws including the hillside and retaining-wall ordinances.
“Dear Councilman Jack Weiss,” reads an e-mail from Laurel Canyon resident Carolyn Carradine, “I implore you to side with your constituents who are appealing the [removal of dirt] at 8538-8550 West Lookout Mountain Avenue. This will result in a massive amount of earth being moved in a neighborhood already under siege with building permits handed out like candy.”
A recent visit by the Weekly to the narrow, hilly streets showed plans under way for three four-story concrete-and-steel homes that will excavate 5,500 cubic yards of dirt and require 600 trucks to remove it. City hillside ordinances require environmental review for removal of more than 1,000 cubic yards of dirt. The developer originally received a “categorical exemption” from the department. On Tuesday, the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners took the rare step of recommending approval of a “haul-route” appeal brought by the Hillside Federation, requiring environmental review of the construction, which the Planning and Land Use Management Committee then approved. Weiss also introduced a motion that the building department approve soils and geology reports before accepting applications for haul-route hearings.
“Dear Mr. Adelman,” reads another letter dated July 5, from the Bel-Air Beverly Hills Crest Neighborhood Council. “The council unanimously and strongly urges that construction activities at 8401 Grandview Drive be immediately suspended. There is great concern that the existing situation is unsafe and presents dangerous conditions, leaving the City of L.A. responsible.” Photos of Grandview Drive show loose earth poking through the metal plates that hold up the hillside. A conveyor belt secured only by a rope hovers above a nearby house. Owner-builder Michael Smith has been entitled to less scrutiny than commercial builders, his neighbors contend. Smith, an aerospace engineer, says he’s just “trying to build a little house,” and that “the city supports my efforts.” Communications from neighbors to city officials describe unsecured rolls of rebar, chunks of asphalt left by the hilly roadside, cracks in the road and road closures. “Weiss’ office told me to call the police if I want illegal construction stopped,” says Jacqueline McLaughlin, who works in the film industry. “People are getting shot in Watts; who wants to send a cop up to Laurel Canyon to shut down a rogue developer?” Hanna Melzer, who lives below the project and has had chunks of asphalt fall on her property, wrote to Adelman and Weiss this week, “I am at the mercy of Mr. Smith’s permit. I am living in fear and my children are anxious.”
Joan Luchs, president of the Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Association, vice president of the Hillside Federation and a member of the Mulholland Design Review Board, has been battling Adelman and his executive officer, Ray Chan, for years. In 2001, after she disputed bogus numbers sent to her by a building inspector in support of a project on the Mulholland Scenic Corridor, she received a notice that her own home was being scheduled for reinspection. She regarded the notice as an attempt to intimidate her and she fought back, forcing the department to revise the project she had been protesting. On June 16, she met with Adelman and gave him a tour of her Hollywood hillside community. “City leaders should not be supporting a circumvention of legal process,” Luchs said, pointing to an item on the building commission agenda this week in which a developer obtained approval for excavation of 19,800 cubic feet of dirt on just two parcels without environmental review. On Tuesday the building commissioners suspended the project while its environmental impact is studied. “Unfortunately you can’t get people to do their jobs until they are pressed,” Luchs said.
LAST SATURDAY, IN A TELEPHONE interview, Adelman’s ex-wife, Jennifer, shed light on the turmoil at the building department that has plagued Adelman, whose employees have accused him of cronyism, selective enforcement and creating a hostile work environment. Still hurting from a painful divorce, which became final on June 30, Jennifer Adelman allowed that her ex-husband’s volatile personality has been an impediment to his success. Yet she could not bring herself to blame the building department’s troubles solely on him.
“His personality is similar to the allegations made against him in court,” Jennifer Adelman told the Weekly, referring to lawsuits in which employees accuse Andrew Adelman of being abusive and intimidating. Raised in persecution as a member of the Baha’i faith in Iran, Adelman is a private man, bordering on secretive, she said. He has hidden assets from his own family, according to written statements his ex-wife filed in the divorce. He has treated them in a manner that has left a lasting mark, she said on Saturday, adding that her ex-husband has depression and anger-management issues.
As for his performance as Los Angeles’ top building official, Jennifer Adelman said her ex-husband has tried to serve the public well, and that he values new construction over older buildings. “He takes safety seriously, and is constantly under pressure to do favors for people. When people try to take advantage of their relationships with him, he keeps them at arm’s length. I hate to be on his side of things, but he has tried to conduct himself publicly as best he can. He tries to do the right thing.”
However, sources of pressure Adelman has not been able to resist, his ex-wife said, are the mayor and City Council members. “He has a fit when he is told to ‘take care of this guy or that guy,’?” Jennifer Adelman said. Fee waivers in particular stick in Adelman’s craw, his ex-wife said. Documents obtained by the Weekly show that construction for Staples Center resulted in waived fees that cost the city more than $1 million. Jennifer Adelman said the same is true of the construction of the luxury hotel being built near the sports and entertainment complex L.A. Live, in the downtown neighborhood South Park. “Any major construction, you can be sure someone is getting a break.”
ONE LAWSUIT THAT ILLUSTRATES the lengths the city goes to to approve improper construction involves a massive addition to a Westside home that could be marred by a questionable lending arrangement. Though the City Attorney’s Office has advised Adelman and the building department every step of the way, the case now exposes the general manager to the threat of fines or jail time for failure to follow a judge’s order and enforce the city’s laws. Adelman has been forced to hire his own lawyer and is pleading with the court to be spared from appearing in person.
The case of Horwitz v. City of Los Angeles and Mehr Beglari is a spectacular mess that has been transferred to Orange County because the lawsuit was filed by two Los Angeles judges. It is merely the latest, most flagrant example of how city leaders have enabled the culture exposed by Chick’s audit — and placed the city in a legal bind.
In 2001, the building department approved developer Mehr Beglari’s plans to add 6,500 square feet to a 2,000-square-foot home at 909 Greentree Road, in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of Pacific Palisades. After the court rejected the addition for being built too close to the street, Beglari bought a house at 921 Greentree Road and built a canopy in an effort to adjust the prevailing setback requirement on the block. Again, the court rejected the project. Despite persistent court orders to revoke unlawful building and certificate of occupancy permits and a looming court date for contempt charges against Adelman, the City Attorney’s Office has dug in its heels and repeatedly defended the approval of Beglari’s plans.
Last Thursday, after the department grudgingly revoked Beglari’s permit and certificate of occupancy at 909 Greentree Road, Orange County Judge David Velasquez denied the city’s motion to reconsider contempt charges against Adelman for refusing to comply with a court order. His arraignment is scheduled for July 27. If he is found in contempt, he could face up to five days in jail or a $1,000 fine. The city also asked Velasquez how it should comply with orders to enforce its own building codes, which require that Beglari either move out or tear down the illegal addition. “What does the city normally do after vacating a permit?” Velasquez asked. “Surely it must happen all the time in L.A., with thousands of converted garages. How does the city enforce its own laws?”
Beglari’s opponents, Los Angeles judges David Horwitz and Diane Wheatley, and real estate lawyer John Rosenfeld, say the city doesn’t enforce its own laws. Rather, it works closely with developers to help them find a way around the laws. “This is a case about a persistent refusal by the [building department] to enforce the zoning laws, including a refusal to follow binding decisions by this court,” reads a motion filed by the plaintiffs. The department replied that it made “an honest mistake” in granting Beglari revised building permits, prompting the opponents to state, “Instead of rectifying the ‘mistake,’ [the department] engaged in a series of delays while Beglari continued to build as fast as possible.” After Velasquez shot down a final attempt by the department to come up with a theory to support granting Beglari a permit, a court of appeals labeled the theory “pure nonsense,” according to court documents. “The time for obfuscation and delay was over,” the opponents state.
Yet Deputy City Attorney Colleen Courtney, Beglari’s attorney Mark Baker and Adelman’s attorney Rene Gascou went before Judge Velasquez last week and stalled. Gascou asked that Adelman be excused from his own arraignment, pointing to media attention and the threat of “irreparable harm” to his reputation. Courtney asked the judge, “If we issue orders to comply and the owner fails to follow them, then what? These are unusual circumstances. There are a whole host of variables. The city is not sure which way to go.” To which Velasquez replied, “I’m not sure what to tell you. Except to enforce the law.”
A previously unexamined issue that has the City Attorney’s Office and Beglari’s lawyer on edge raises further questions about what the city is doing out on a limb with Beglari in the first place. The issue surfaced last week, when Courtney urged the judge to consider the effect on Beglari’s lenders, if the city is forced to take action against Beglari’s property. Baker strenuously objected to the suggestion that lenders should be notified of the contempt hearing, and asked Beglari’s opponents to refrain from contacting the banks that loaned Beglari money.
Public records show that Beglari took out two loans on the property at 909 Greentree totaling $3 million — but under the property’s previous address, 864 Brooktree Road, which he had legally changed. Then, when he built a canopy on his house at 921 Greentree in an attempt to lower the prevailing setback requirement on the block, he took out another $3 million loan with Countrywide Home Loans, under the name Westside Manor LLC. Then he demolished the house and the canopy at 921 Greentree.
The rub is: Court records show that when Beglari applied for the loans with Washington Mutual, his building permits at 909 Greentree were before the court of appeals, after the trial court had ruled them illegal. A standard borrower’s affidavit from Washington Mutual asks borrowers to attest that there is no civil action pending on the property being used to secure the loan. Besides the financial risk should he now be required to tear down his addition, the bank might have something to say about Beglari’s loan application. The City Attorney’s Office wants full disclosure, so as to not get caught up in a potential case of misrepresentation. Thus, Beglari is heavily leveraged on a doomed venture, which he couldn’t have undertaken without the city’s help. Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry confirmed the disclosure terms but would not comment on details of Beglari’s loan application.
Meanwhile, Velasquez granted Beglari’s opponents “leeway” last week to act as prosecutors in the quasi-criminal contempt trial of Adelman. They will be issuing subpoenas for communications between Beglari and building department inspectors and officials, and internal correspondence regarding the matter. Their subpoena power extends to the department’s computer hard drives. With respect to Beglari and his lenders, Velasquez stated, “Quite possibly, notice to the lender is in order at this point. There’s a lot of fine print involved. Maybe someone needs a good lawyer.” Of the case in general, Velasquez observed, “The parties may want to consider how to resolve this matter. Before anyone starts chopping down trees, you don’t want to forget the forest.”
SCRUTINY OF THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT has been under way for some time. City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka recently advised the mayor that revenue from building permits, which are paid for in advance of inspection services, has increased from $74 million to $112 million in recent years. The CAO recommended hiring more than 70 new inspectors to deal with staff burnout, backlogs in inspections and increased liability risks. Chick’s audit states that the city has lost out on more than $6 million as a result of backlogged inspections and failure to collect noncompliance fees. She found 150,000 permits that expired last year without final approval, more than 13,600 unresolved code violations and 45 percent of inspectors reviewed who failed to meet state law training requirements.
Chick’s findings, which point to poor management, come at a critical time of growth with developer controversies escalating across the city. None of this is lost on city officials, who are climbing over each other to appear to be addressing the problem. Councilman Tom LaBonge has introduced an initiative to check the “mansionization” of Los Angeles, and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel is pushing one regarding slope density, which refers to infrastructure and environmental concerns related to increased development in hillside areas. On Tuesday, the Planning and Land Use Management Committee approved an interim control ordinance that would authorize the study of environmental effects of development in the northeast hillside communities. A full year into his mayoral term, Villaraigosa is just now installing planning commissioners that share his “green vision” for Los Angeles. Otherwise, the city has been wide open for business.
Area residents who have seen what the building department — and City Hall — are made of remain skeptical. “It’s like a window display at Macy’s,” said one Laurel Canyon resident on Tuesday, after the flurry of corrective activity.
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