It’s a tale of two cities, but only one property.
Developer Terry Moore and a group of investors shelled out $7 million in 2013 for three side-by-side multifamily buildings that are bisected by the border between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. When Moore proposed demolishing the aging structures at 332-336 N. Oakhurst Drive to construct a single 31-unit condo building – four stories tall on the front Beverly Hills side and five stories tall on the back L.A. side, in compliance with each cities’ zoning codes – he unwittingly became the focal point of a battle between the two cities.
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning approved the project about eight months ago – in February. The Beverly Hills Planning Commission, on the other hand, came close to rejecting it after a tense, three hour-plus hearing Oct. 8. Instead of an outright denial, however, the commissioners granted a continuance on the condition that Moore’s team work with a subcommittee to dramatically overhaul the proposal, scaling it down to see if a more appropriate project can be achieved, said Ryan Gohlich, a senior planner for Beverly Hills.
The whole ordeal has exposed deeper tensions between the cities.
“It’s all about Beverly Hills,” said Beverly Hills Planning Commissioner Lori Greene Gordon at the October hearing. “It’s our front (of the building), it’s our view and it really concerns me that Los Angeles has that much say in what we in Beverly Hills can do with our property.”
Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch, who is not on the planning commission, also took a shot at his larger neighbor.
“Los Angeles has a checkered history of approving projects for political reasons,” he said. “The fact that L.A. approved it has no bearing. (Beverly Hills) needs to do what’s right for us.”
For its part, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning said the decision is simple.
“This was a pretty straightforward project that (meets) zoning requirements,” said City Planner Luciralia Ibarra.
Not the norm
If there’s any solace in it, this brand of discord is not the norm.
“In my experience with the cities in Southern California who straddle jurisdictional boundaries, there’s usually a cooperative attitude about the land-use process,” said David P. Waite, an attorney at Century City firm Cox Castle & Nicholson who deals largely with California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, lawsuits. “What’s happening (with the Oakhurst property) is rare.”
Moore, the developer, was shocked.
“We expected to be much further along in the entitlement process,” he said. “But we’re plodding on. Back to the drawing board.”
The hearing earlier this month was the latest scene in the two-city drama surrounding the property.
A Beverly Hills neighborhood group, after failing in its appeal of L.A.’s approval of the project, filed a CEQA lawsuit against Los Angeles in Superior Court, alleging the city failed to adequately analyze the environment impacts of the project, including the historical significance of the dilapidated buildings, which were constructed by Edith Mortensen Northman, who built several gas stations and single-family homes in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills during the 1930s, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy’s website.
The CEQA suit is scheduled to go to trial in June.
The situation is made complex because for about a three-block stretch the border does not run down the middle of the street but slices through the block; the front of a house that faces Oakhurst is in Beverly Hills while the back is in Los Angeles.
Two-thirds of Moore’s Oakhurst property is in Los Angeles, where 24 of the 31 units are proposed. Because the majority of the property falls within its jurisdiction, Los Angeles was charged with preparing the environmental review of the property under CEQA. Its review found the structures on Oakhurst were not historic.
Northman’s building on Oakhurst received no official designation, nor did the area it sits in. But the neighborhood group, Concerned Citizens of Beverly Hills/Beverly Grove, led by Steve Mayer (who has a post office box address in Beverly Hills but actually lives in Los Angeles) argued that it has the potential to be one. Concerned Citizens claims the surrounding area was identified as a “potential historic district” by the survey team for the 2014 Historic Resources Survey.
“We’ve been lambasted,” Moore said. “I’ve been a developer in Los Angeles for 15 years, and it’s never been this bad. It just takes this one guy (Mayer) who is a troublemaker and doesn’t even live in the neighborhood. We’ve got a lot of support but that doesn’t come up.”
At the hearing earlier this month, Mayer suggested Moore convert the existing buildings into condos.
“These buildings are not historical, they are simply old,” said Moore’s land-use attorney, Ellia Thompson of Sklar Kirsch’s Century City office. “They are in a state of disrepair. They are not up to code. The idea that we could slap some paint on them and do a condo conversion is frankly baseless and ludicrous.”
Ibarra, L.A.’s city planner, said no historical information of substance was presented by Beverly Hills while it was doing its environmental analysis.
“Beverly Hills never went on record saying it would be a historic district, and we never got anything from them regarding the historic features of the building itself, except for a memo which didn’t really identify any noteworthy events or people that would have raised it to a level of significance,” Ibarra said. “So, it’s on them.”
The issue of historical significance was less important to the Beverly Hills Planning Commission than the issue of scale. Planning Commissioner Craig Corman, who will be part of the subcommittee working with the developer to revise the project, was much more concerned with the density of the project, which he said is inconsistent with the mostly two-story buildings on the surrounding blocks.
“Even if the area is not in a historic district, that doesn’t mean its character shouldn’t be protected,” he said.
Corman said Moore’s project would have to be scaled down drastically before it can be brought back to the commission. He did not specify how drastically, saying that it needed to be consistent with that block. The 300 block of Oakhurst has two-story buildings; Moore is proposing four stories on the Beverly Hills side.
L.A.’s Ibarra said any major changes to the plan that was originally proposed to Los Angeles will require that the process start over there, too.
Meantime, Moore, who has developed 25 other condo projects in Los Angeles, is watching his property sit vacant while he waits to meet with the subcommittee to start redrafting a smaller project.
He’s ready to compromise.
“It’s not going to be the condo conversion that Mayer wants because, economically, we could never make that happen based on what we paid for the properties, and the fact that buildings are functionally obsolete,” he said. “But we can alter the plan to something softer that fits in (the subcommittee’s) minds.”
He didn’t specify how many stories or units he might propose.
The first meeting won’t happen until after November, said Gohlich, the Beverly Hills planner.
Moore, whose vacant properties aren’t generating income, filed under the Ellis Act in April of last year to evict tenants from the rent-controlled buildings as part of a condo conversion.
Moore paid the former Oakhurst residents’ relocation fees, and all tenants were out by August.
“With a new development, you figure you will have a year with no income, but this seems like more like two years,” he said, adding that he is shocked a project compliant with code and zoning rules would face this much opposition. “I’ve dealt with a lot, but never anything close to this. Ever.”