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Thursday, Feb 2, 2023

Bigger, but Better?

The last towers allowed along Westwood’s “Golden Mile,” a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard lined with high-rise condominiums, may soon break ground each higher than 20 stories. After that, all future projects along the nine-block section of Wilshire will be restricted to a height equal to six floors.

There’s just one thing: Each development is relying on approvals that are nearly 30 years old, when Wilshire Boulevard had a fraction of the density and traffic it now has.

This has gotten the attention of homeowner groups that are questioning whether approval of the towers could set a bad precedent for the city, where parcels with antiquated entitlements some stretching back to the 1920s still exist.

“This is happening all over the city,” said Sandy Brown, president of Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Association. Her group has retained an attorney and is considering going to court to fight construction of the towers. “Ventura Boulevard now faces the same thing Wilshire has faced and we’re just seeing the beginning of this downtown.”

Indeed, developers are trying to alter decades-old entitlements for two large-scale projects in downtown Los Angeles. IDS Equities LLC is attempting to use entitlements from the mid-1980s allowing a 2.6 million-square-foot office, retail and hotel complex northwest of Staples Center called Metropolis.

Meanwhile, Maguire Properties Inc. is in discussions with city officials about adding condominiums and shops to a parcel entitled two decades ago for a hotel behind its newly acquired 777 Tower.

Typically, when the city green-lights building plans, the approvals rarely expire or are automatically renewed. Those entitlements stay attached to the land, even though it may change hands several times before construction begins.

While the buildings still have to comply with present-day zoning and building safety policies, approvals from earlier days may not reflect newer thinking on planning policies and current-day community concerns.

Sometimes, the projects gained approval using Environmental Impact Reports from an earlier period. For the Westwood projects, both developers under pressure from the community and elected officials agreed to rework their environmental studies.

Woodbridge Capital is proposing a 24-story tower with 87 condominiums at 10776 Wilshire Blvd., between Malcolm and Selby avenues, and Fifield Cos. wants to build a 21-story tower with 35 for-sale units at 10250 Wilshire Blvd., at the southeast corner of Comstock Avenue.

Each of the projects is awaiting a final sign-off by outgoing L.A. City Planning Director Con Howe.

The developers updated the EIRs for the Westwood projects in order to blunt potential community opposition.

But city officials are now taking a broader look at how antiquated entitlements are being used and what problems they may create. The Policy Review Committee of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles was expected to discuss the issue at its meeting last week.

‘Fears unfounded’

Mark Armbruster, an attorney representing the developers of the Westwood condo towers, said while he understands the concerns of residents, the projects haven’t proven to be harmful to the community.

“Their fears are unfounded,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of additional testing at the neighbors’ request and the results show that these projects will not have impact on surrounding homes.”

Howe agrees that some of the fears residents have about developers improperly using older entitlements are unfounded.

While acknowledging that some projects approved long ago have to be reshaped to fit modern requirements, he said earlier approvals sometimes limit the size of developments, as they did in the Westwood project being developed by Chicago-based Fifield.

Howe said that using today’s entitlements, the company could have built far more than 35 units on the site, commonly referred to as the “Pumpkin Patch.”

“Under current zoning, they could have probably built about 60 units,” he said, “but they have to abide by the original limitations placed on them.”

He added that the two Westwood projects will have only a minor impact on traffic congestions along Wilshire. Still, Howe said there are a number of parcels in downtown L.A. that have decades-old approvals. The entitlements were approved during robust economic times when developers were building lots of office towers downtown.

Now, with the housing market red-hot, developers want to convert those approvals into similar-sized projects that instead are residential focused.

“Each of those is going to depend on what those entitlements are for,” he said. “While the developers have a legal right, they still have to conform with zoning.”

Brown, the Westwood activist, is unconvinced.

Until the city has the infrastructure to support the projects it already has on its books, then the development shouldn’t proceed, she said, no matter when the approvals were given.

“Many of these projects assumed the Westside would have a freeway or a mass transit system that would take some burden off the streets,” Brown said. “Neither happened, and now you’re seeing a Los Angeles taking shape that can’t support what’s being built.”


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