In a surprise move, developers of the hard-fought Millennium Hollywood towers next to Capitol Records tell LA Weekly they won't seek building permits until two lawsuits against them are resolved, a process that could take years.
A spokesman for the developer says, further, that the developer is not digging trenches — as announced in August — to determine the precise location of the Hollywood Fault rupture known to run near, and perhaps beneath, the proposed twin skyscrapers site.
The news is a surprise to many, coming as a California State Geologist's team works to finish an official map of the Hollywood Earthquake Fault zone. The map is widely expected to show the Millennium project inside the quake zone. If so, here's the situation:
In California, it is illegal to construct buildings for human occupancy on top of, or next to, an earthquake fault. The Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Zoning Act was signed in 1972, after the destructive 1971 San Fernando earthquake, to prevent catastrophic loss of life.
The two lawsuits against Millennium could take months — or years — to resolve. After that, Millennium would presumably hire a geologist to do seismic testing — and after that, seek a building permit.
Brian Lewis, spokesman for Millennium Hollywood, says:
“The additional study and trenching required by Dept. of Building and Safety is not scheduled. The legal challenges need to be resolved before we move ahead and pull permits.”
George Abrahams, a longtime Hollywood resident and a plaintiff in one of the two lawsuits, says, “I think they're getting a case of cold feet. Maybe they're rethinking the wisdom of building a huge building in Hollywood.”
Longtime Hollywood resident and well-known City Hall activist John Walsh says:
“The last thing Millennium wants to do is trenching. Everybody knows when they trench, they're going to find an earthquake fault. I can tell you when they start trenching, [attorney] Silverstein and the rest of the people whose names are on the lawsuit will have the best trenching experts on the planet watching over their shoulder to make sure they don't pull dirty tricks on trenching.”
The Los Angeles City Council rushed through approval of the 39-story and 35-story skyscrapers in July amidst significant opposition. The council acted after getting a warning letter from State Geologist John Parrish saying the project might fall within an Earthquake Fault Zone and face many possible restrictions.
City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who wasn't present at the meeting, was the only dissenting voice on the council, saying in a statement that “the height of the towers is too tall and out of scale with the character of Hollywood” and that he was worried about traffic impact.
A lawsuit filed by community members to halt the project rattled City Hall when opponents produced documents suggesting that top City Hall officials did not know how close the Millennium site was to the active fault, yet granted the skyscrapers a series of approvals.
Amidst an ensuing outcry, Millennium agreed with the city's request to conduct soil trenching before seeking a building permit — soil studies that would determine if their site is on top of, or next to, the Hollywood fault.
More than two months later, the developer now says they never began testing or trenching. Lewis, speaking for Millennium's developers, explains via email:
“Further subsoil investigations, as required by the City of Los Angeles, will be conducted when we are ready to apply for building permits, which will follow the resolution of the current legal challenges.”
Philip Aarons, co-founder of Millennium Partners, and a former assistant to the mayor of New York in the 1970s, promised at a packed City Hall hearing last summer, “It's not our interest to develop a project without addressing any and all seismic concerns. We couldn't and we won't.”
A 1997 Hollywood Earthquake Fault map by USC professor James Dolan and others shows that a fault finger runs beneath the skyscraper site. The map is a key source the state is using as it maps the legal boundaries of the Hollywood Earthquake Fault zone.
All new buildings proposed inside the zone face high scrutiny and some will be banned.
The two lawsuits the developers face include one by community groups, represented by lawyer Robert P. Silverstein, that seeks to overturn the City Council's conceptual approval of the skyscrapers. The other, filed by the W Hotel, a luxury hotel a few blocks away, also challenges the city's approvals.
In addition, Hollywood resident George Abrahams has filed a complaint with the City Ethics Commission against interim general manager of the Department of Building and Safety Raymond Chan, for alleged conflict of interest, money-laundering and other violations. Abrahams says in the complaint he is concerned about the integrity of the department's review of earthquake safety issues surrounding the Millennium project.
Activist Walsh says the project is at “an impasse” because Millennium owners Aarons and Jeffries “got caught with their pants down” by omitting from their Environmental Impact Report any studies showing the suspected finger of the fault beneath their site.
Jim McQuinston, a Caltech graduate and engineer who has lived in Hollywood since 1960, is happy the skyscrapers have been interrupted by lawsuits.
McQuinston is concerned about the lives of residents in and around the towers if a severe quake hits. He says:
“If you have a building that's that tall … it's not just going to lean over and end up on a building. What happens is it shakes back and forth and it rocks like a pendulum, eventually the materials break loose. When they break loose, the whole building goes down.”
McQuinston adds, “It's better to build low, wide buildings than skinny, tall buildings, probably anywhere in Los Angeles, but especially in the area of the Hollywood Fault and the Santa Monica Fault” which runs under Santa Monica Boulevard between the ocean and Century City.
The Hollywood Fault, well-known to geologists, was little-known to the public until late summer. It was also apparently little-known to powerful bodies such as the Planning Commission, which approved the twin skyscrapers without addressing the fault issue.
Various L.A. officials, lacking an accurate, official Hollywood Earthquake Fault Zone map to consult, allowed several high-rises to move through the development pipeline — without finding out where the fault was. Blvd6200, believed directly adjacent to the fault, is the only one actually being built.
The Hollywood Fault was never officially mapped due to state budget cuts, according to Parrish.
The California Geological Survey, led by Parrish, is now studying existing maps and reports, and conducting site surveys, to create an official Alquist-Priolo Fault Zone Map that L.A. officials must then abide by in Hollywood. (The state's work is independent of Millennium's delayed geological study, and doesn't involve digging trenches.)
When the state map is released at the end of the year or in early 2014, some Hollywood developments on the drawing boards may be deemed illegal to build.
Parrish says that while the city has required Millennium to find out if a fault runs through its property, the state does not need to conduct trenching to create an official Alquist-Priolo quake zone — a boundary map encompassing the known ruptures.
Parris explains in an email:
“Trench digging and any other investigative techniques done on the site of the Millennium Hollywood project will be performed by the project proponent under the direction of the City of Los Angeles.”
“Though CGS [California Geological Survey] studies data from a variety of sources during the study, its work is not contingent on the completion of work related to the Millennium Hollywood project to complete a zone map for the Hollywood Fault.”
Luke Zamperini, spokesman for the Dept. of Building and Safety, which has been criticized for playing a key role in moving the Millennium project forward, says it is the developer's job, not his department's, to determine if there's a fault at the site before seeking a building permit.
“It's not the City Geologist's job to find earthquake faults. The State Geologist is the one who is supposed to map the earthquake fault and fault study zones. The geologist hired by the developer is supposed to do the exploration to see what the soil conditions are like. Our geologist reviews their work and decides whether it's sufficient or not.”