While developers in Los Angeles have encountered a slew of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenges to their projects which have delayed construction and prevented job creation, residents and neighborhood councils see CEQA as their last line of defense against perceived inappropriate development that could have negative impacts on their communities.
One example of this is a project at 5891 Olympic Blvd. The project, which will be discussed at the next Mid-City West Community Council (MCWCC) planning and land use meeting on July 25, and is still in its early stages, has drawn some outcry from neighbors. The project is a four story mixed-use development with 44 residential units that could provide housing for employees of Olympia Medical Center, located across the street, as well as rental properties for families of long-term care patients. It would also include medical office space.
Neighborhood councils, which are notified of land use applications submitted in their area, meet in order to review development projects and offer recommendations to the city’s planning commission, who ultimately can approve a project and advocate for the positions of their constituents.
The MCWCC planning and land use committee initially reviewed the development as a viable and beneficial project for the area before neighbors began raising objections about the project.
“Although our committee initially thought it was good project architecturally and for the people at the hospital […] who could potentially rent units there on a priority basis, when the property owners found out, they expressed concerns – some real, some imagined,” said Stan Brent, chair of the planning and land use committee for the MCWCC. “We did not anticipate the amount of interest in this project, but we had thirty to forty people at the last hearing. Generally, you don’t get that type of reaction where people come to the meetings.”
Many were concerned about the height of the four-story building infringing upon the privacy of their homes, while others worried about the structure’s impact on traffic and parking in the area, according to Brent. In order to begin construction, the developer is seeking a zoning change and municipal code variance, which is what caused the MCWCC committee to review the project in the first place.
“We look at anything that requires discretionary approval within our neighborhood,” Brent said. “We review projects, listen to stakeholders and give that information to the city’s planning commission.”
Regardless of the neighborhood council’s approval, disapproval or conditions set on a project, when it goes before the city’s planning commission, the city is not required to follow their recommendation – although the city has generally gone along with the council’s ruling, Brent said.
But others feel that the process for granting the development of projects is still out of reach for the ordinary citizen, and that’s where CEQA litigation often comes into play.
“I think developers have greater access to the powers that be than ordinary people in the city,” said David Bell, president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council. “I see this really from a community prospective rather than a legal perspective. My main concern is the community, and law is a tool for the community to use to have a voice.”
Bell, an attorney, represented Doug Haines, an East Hollywood resident, in filing a CEQA lawsuit against a proposed Target store at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue several years ago.
Haines said that members of the community, who supported a Target in the area, simply could not accept the size of the project, which they said would block neighborhood views of the Hollywood hills, and would have significant impact on the area.
“People have a right to know what is going to happen to the community,” Haines said. “CEQA is a tool, it’s there to let the public know what the environmental consequences of a project are.”
The Target project at 5520 Sunset Blvd. has been delayed, and according to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, delays to projects caused by CEQA have resulted in the loss of more than 6,000 jobs in Hollywood. The Target project alone could have created 150 construction jobs and more than 400 permanent jobs.
“We are in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression,” said Leron Gubler, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, adding that U.S. economy only added 18,000 jobs in June and 25,000 the month before. “If you are someone who is unemployed, jobs are very important, if you are underemployed, it is significant. If we are going to get the economy going in Southern California, which benefits everyone, it is only with jobs and putting people back to work.”
Gubler added that in talks with building trades commissioners, they have noted a 40 percent unemployment rate among their workers.
“I think the developers and the [Hollywood Chamber of Commerce] rely upon this idea that people would like to see Hollywood turn around, but you have to be careful about how you do it, and have perspective that takes into account the cultural aspects,” Bell said. “It’s Hollywood, it’s not Tulsa. It’s a place that should be dealt with respect and care. Not just sort of handed out to the highest bidder.”
Haines and Bell both said the idea that CEQA is solely responsible for job loss on development projects is absurd.
“The reality is that litigation is a result of development that people don’t want,” Haines said. “These projects don’t go forward because they are speculative projects, there is no market for massive condo towers in Hollywood.”
Once a project has gone into a litigation phase, developers often look to resolve disputes with the petitioner who filed the lawsuit, via settlement.
However, Jeff Jacobberger, vice chair of the MCWCC, worries that when an individual challenges a project under CEQA, when a settlement is reached, they cut out elected community and city council officials, who may have previously submitted input to improve a project for their stakeholders.
“They reach a settlement about scope of project and the rest of the public is excluded from that discussion … so it becomes planning by litigation rather than planning by participatory process, and I think that is problematic,” Jacobberger said. “There are people who are using CEQA as a tool to stop projects they don’t like and get their own way, instead of having our elected and appointed officials decide.”
Jacobberger also said that often when there is public outcry of the specifics of a project it is because people are failing to look at the bigger picture or choose to look at it project-by-project, rather than their impacts on the community as a whole.
On July 25, the MCWCC planning and land use committee will meet to consider the project on Olympic Boulevard as well as several others projects the council has been notified about, Brent said.
The MCWCC meeting will take place at 543 N. Fairfax Ave. from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The community council will then make a ruling after taking the public comments into account, and pass their ruling on to the city’s planning commission.
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