If you stand at the high-profile corner of Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards – the gateway to Beverly Hills – you will see the famous Beverly Hills Hilton, the five-star Peninsula Hotel and a well-kept community park.
But if you look again, you’ll see a coffee shop and a car rental place at the edge of a vacant weed-spotted plot left over from a now-defunct railroad that once chugged through the city.
It might not be like that for much longer. The Beverly Hills Planning Commission is preparing an amendment that would allow development of three- and four-story commercial buildings on the neglected strip that’s more than five football fields long.
It could turn the Santa Monica side of that strip into another high-class strip of retail and office space in that posh city.
“It’s long overdue for something to happen there,” said Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker. “It’s ugly as it stands. This is a very important gateway.”
For a decade, the owners of the three parcels that make up the stretch have been seeking changes to the zoning and general plan that would allow them to bring commercial development to the former railroad land.
Recently, demand has been growing for development there. Only a few years ago, billionaire Eli Broad had considered developing his art museum on those parcels before deciding to move it to downtown Los Angeles.
Jeff Wilson, who owns the center part of the property, said that the approvals would allow him to finally bring businesses to his property.
“What the Planning Commission is trying to do is to give parameters so there can be an economically feasible project on the three owners’ property,” said Wilson. “I think all three of us are waiting for the city to finish this Gateway Overlay Zone so we can see what can be done there.”
The property, about 3 acres of former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way, flanks small retailers along Santa Monica and South Santa Monica boulevards. It does have some commercial development, including a Budget Rent-A-Car outpost as well as a Starbucks. But overall, it remains untouched.
The property owners – Wilson, real estate management business owner Maynard Brittan and Budget President Jeff Mirkin – applied as a group for the zone change and general plan amendment in order to take advantage of its prime location and the desire of local businesses to move in there.
“A lot of people over the years from different companies made inquiries if they could locate their companies there,” said Wilson, who added that most of those companies were in the entertainment industry.
He planned a project for a three-story, 90,000-square-foot office building at that property years ago, but has set that aside while waiting to hear the commission’s final recommendation.
The Planning Commission is considering an overlay zone that would amend zoning code and the general plan for that location. It is likely to finalize an amendment in coming weeks and send it to the City Council for approval by this summer.
While changes are still possible, the current and likely amendment will allow for three-story buildings, up to 45 feet in height, along the property currently zoned for transportation. The building density would be allowed at a ratio of 1.5 square feet of development to 1 square foot of land. Acceptable uses would include museums, boutique hotels and retail. Office space would be allowed on second and third floors.
All developments would also be required to provide additional parking as well as public green space on the site.
Development on the center of the property, where the Starbucks now stands, would be allowed up to 60 feet high, if certain conditions such as additional setbacks and parking are met.
Through the amendment, the land owners are being encouraged to partner with the nearby businesses and property owners of the buildings abutting the long-vacant parcel. Such a partnership would allow them to demolish existing buildings and build something larger and more cohesive in the area. If a partnership forms, development could be built at a higher development to land ratio, of about 1.75 to 1.
No official partnerships have been announced, although the owners have talked with nearby property owners.
“We’ve had some discussion with them and they’re delighted about what could be done there,” said Wilson.
A spokesman for Peninsula Hotel said he has not been approached about a partnership, but may be among local businesses that could benefit from revitalization in the area.
“In general, the hotel is supportive of new development in the area as long as it’s respectful of all the stakeholders,” said Michael Tenner, general counsel for Peninsula owner Probity International Corp. in Beverly Hills. “We also hope any new development would address the existing lack of parking for the current nonconforming users in the neighborhood.”
Tenner is referring to many of the older small buildings along South Santa Monica that were built decades ago and do not offer parking.
But, there are other developments already planned for the area. The owners of the 9900 Wilshire Blvd. building, a former Robinsons-May, plan to build 235-unit twin condos soon. The Beverly Hilton received approval to develop a 120-room Waldorf-Astoria on its property, though there is no time line for that project.
Whatever the development is, the Planning Commission has been clear that it would prefer to avoid an imposing façade on the site, instead seeking more of a Cape Cod feel with indentations in the building and setbacks of as much as 40 feet.
Others hope the area becomes yet another popular shopping destination in the city, but this time with a different appeal than Rodeo Drive.
Brucker said he hopes any development will be similar to the size and style of streets such as Robertson Boulevard or Melrose Avenue.
Retail broker Jay Luchs, executive vice president of CBRE Group Inc. in Century City who has built much of his career on leasing Westside shopping strips, said that isn’t an unrealistic dream for the area.
“It’s a very happening, strong corner and location,” Luchs said. “You have the beautiful houses north and south, all surrounded like a mecca of wealth. … You probably could get a nice mix of tenants. I don’t know if it would be Robertson or Malibu, but I think you could create something special.”