Developer Ira Smedra is vowing to pursue plans for his controversial Village Center Westwood development, despite growing doubts about the project's viability among community leaders.
"We will proceed with the original application," Smedra, president of the Arba Group development company, said last week. "We will finalize a schedule with the city in the next two to three weeks for hearings."
Even so, both supporters and opponents of the 450,000-square-foot retail-entertainment mall say the future of the project is clouded after state legislation to ease the way for the development was withdrawn from the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.
"I'm not sure where it's at. I am concerned," said Frank Ponder, general manager of Bel Air Camera and co-president of the Westwood 2000 group, which was formed to show support for the $84 million development.
"I would like to see it go forward," Ponder said. "The empty space is an eyesore."
Neighborhood activist Laura Lake, who says the project is too big for the Village, said she is convinced the center is no longer viable without the legislation sought by Smedra.
"The project has to crumble," said Lake, president of Friends of Westwood. "We used to say he was rearranging deck chairs. Now he's counting lifeboats and preservers."
The Village Center Westwood, which would include a Ralph's supermarket, a Long's drug store and a 3,400-seat multiplex cinema, is planned for an area bounded by Glendon, Weyburn and Tiverton avenues near UCLA.
As part of the development, Smedra has proposed closing Glendon Avenue as a through street.
AB 1768, authored by Assemblyman Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, would have eased the building process by allowing construction to begin without waiting for claims to be settled with property owners affected by the street closure.
Murray dropped the bill amid fierce opposition. But Allen Abshez, an attorney representing the developer, said the project can still be built without the legislation.
Under the original plan, Smedra was going to ask the city of Los Angeles to "vacate" the street. Under AB 1768, Smedra would have sought to close the street under a provision of state law regulating pedestrian malls.
With the failure of the bill, Smedra will now go back to asking the city to vacate the street, Abshez said. Under that scenario, nearby property owners could ultimately file damage claims against the city or developer for loss of easements to their property.
Abshez, however, said such claims would be "based on archaic court decisions" and predicted they would not be upheld.
In addition to the failure of the legislation, the project has been hit with other obstacles.
A series of public hearings on the project was postponed this summer after Smedra requested more time to resolve technical issues. Although no new date has been set, Smedra said he expects to have a new hearing schedule this month.
Another setback came last April with the death of Jack Ostrow, a key financial adviser to A & M; Records founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who are investors in the proposed center.
Smedra, however, said he has made a substantial investment in the project he would not disclose how much and is not about to back away from it.
Councilman Mike Feuer, who represents Westwood and supports the Smedra project, said he believes the obstacles can be overcome.
"I know they have committed to move forward with the project," Feuer said. "I do anticipate in the weeks ahead that they will come to the city and present what they want to with the proposal."
Local activists feel that the project doesn't conform to the Westwood Specific Plan, a blueprint for development in the Village crafted in 1984, that allows for a maximum of 6,030 theater seats a plateau that has already been reached.
Abshez said the Westwood seat cap was imposed before the explosion of theater venues in adjoining suburbs.
"People won't be driving from Simi Valley to see movies. That phenomenon of driving to Westwood for movies is not a problem," he said. "We won't repeat the problems of the past. Our customers will not be spilling over into the neighbors."
Meanwhile, business support for the project may be less solid than it was two years ago, before the commercial real estate market on the Westside came roaring back.
With several new restaurants slated to open in the coming months, the community is poised for unprecedented growth with or without Smedra's addition, said Jeffrey Knight, the owner of Maui Beach Caf & #233; in the Village.
Knight supports development of the site, which now encompasses a parking lot and empty buildings, but said he opposes the street closure. He was among those who flew to Sacramento to testify against AB 1768.
"We want some sort of anchor project on that site," Knight said. "It's one of the great pieces of real estate in L.A. But the project needs to be more retail-friendly to the area. To shut down the arteries to UCLA is suicidal."
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