Homeowners for hire?
A Westwood property owners group is claiming that the developer of a proposed retail and theater complex has created a “front group” called Westwood 2000 to create the appearance of public support for the project.
The strategy, according to leaders of Friends of Westwood, was devised by Carl Terzian Associates an L.A. public relations firm that used similar tactics to counter opposition to the 20th Century Fox expansion in Century City.
“This isn’t a grass-roots movement,” said Debbie Gendel, a spokeswoman for Friends of Westwood. “A group started by a developer is biased.”
Gendel’s group is opposing the planned Village Center Westwood by developer Ira Smedra, president of the Arba Group in downtown Los Angeles.
Smedra’s plan calls for a 14- to 15-screen multiplex theater, retail stores and restaurants on a 5.17-acre vacant parcel bounded by Weyburn, Glendon and Tiverton Avenues.
Terzian president Tom Tomlin acknowledged that the firm organized Westwood 2000 and sent out cards soliciting support for the Smedra project from residents and businesses.
But he said the company is simply tapping into existing grass roots enthusiasm for the project.
“There was a tremendous amount of support for the plan but it was not unified and we simply brought the supporters together,” Tomlin said.
Westwood 2000 the name refers to the upcoming millenium has more than 2,000 supporters, said Frank Ponder, manager of Bel Air Camera in Westwood and co-president of Westwood 2000.
Ponder said he has watched with dismay as the Village has declined over the years and sees the Smedra development as a chance to improve the business district.
“This is an ideal project and something that Westwood absolutely must have or it will become a ghost town,” said Ponder. “I’ve lived in Westwood for more than 20 years and our community really needs this project.”
Friends of Westwood President Laura Lake, however, asserts that most Westwood residents oppose the theater project as too massive, and that Westwood 2000 is designed to create a false impresson of widespread support.
She said Terzian employed similar tactics when it organized Friends of Fox to support the 20th Century Fox expansion, citing a December 1993 article by Tomlin that appeared in the National Real Estate Investor.
In the article, Tomlin details the strategy he used to identify and activate the supporters of the Fox project and the tactics that were taken to vocalize their support and garner media attention.
Tomlin said that supporters of the Westwood project were not hand-picked by Smedra but instead had come to Smedra to let him know that they supported the project.
“Within the past two weeks, 33 top merchants met for breakfast and signed an endorsement of the Smedra project,” Tomlin said. “These merchants believe that Westwood is dying and without this project, they may be dying too.”
Smedra also disputed Lake’s accusations.
“It is absolutely not true that these people have been ‘created’ for the purposes of Westwood 2000,” Smedra said. “These are people that live in Westwood and businesses that operate there as well. There is very growing support of this project from these people.”
The project’s Environmental Impact Report was submitted to Los Angeles city officials last month.
Allan Abshez, partner with the law firm of Irell & Manella, said he expects the EIR to be published within a few weeks.