BLOG: Centrum Gyrations

The City Council may have rejected the Centrum Sunset project at its Aug. 20 meeting, but the gyrations to justify the rejection revealed a lot about what was really going on behind the scenes.

You have to credit Council member John Duran for consistency. at the old Tower Records site on the Sunset Strip.

While others wiggled to find ways of avoiding taking an affirmative vote, Duran stuck to his oft repeated principle that what ever is good for donors – I mean developers – is good for West Hollywood. To paraphrase Will Rogers, Mr. Duran has never met a developer he didn’t like. But you have to give Duran credit for sticking to his principles.

While I was no supporter of the proposed development, it was fascinating to watch the gyrations of the Council as they tried to figure out how to vote the project down without disputing the City’s traffic study.

Mayor Jeff Prang lamely argued that without knowing the projects proposed tenants, he could not support the project. John D’Amico came up with a novel theory of government by saying he could not support a project that did not have Council consensus. If only his colleagues had such scruples.

Finally John Heilman said he opposed the project because it was “too big.”

A few days after the hearing, a friend approached me at the gym laughing at Heilman’s comments. “Heilman can support the ten-story Casden project and he supports building an eleven-story Marriott hotel near my apartment at Sunset and Doheny, but he can’t support a three-story project at the Tower Records site?” he asked incredulously.

Except for the electronic signage that wrapped around the third floor of the project, the Centrum proposal was within existing codes. The obnoxious vertical billboard originally proposed for the front of the project was eliminated as well as the ill-conceived notion of locating a high-use David Barton gym on the site. The 47,000-square-foot retail/office project was limited to 18,000 square feet of retail/restaurant use. The height and mass of the project was within code. By ditching the gym, the project had more parking than required under existing building codes.

The most obvious problem with the project is the fact that Tower is located at a problematic junction. Horn, Palm and Holloway all coincide with Sunset at this intersection. The original Spago restaurant was located on Horn behind what is now the Coffee Bean and demonstrated that when commercial uses are intensified in this area, the traffic creates substantial negative impacts on the neighborhoods north of the Strip.

It would seem to me that the most obvious reason to reject a project that is basically within code would be due to unmitigatable traffic conditions. But nothing in West Hollywood is that simple.

The developer, Sol Barket, set himself up for defeat when he attempted to secure a last-minute continuance of the hearing. The developer had apparently been assured by at least one Council member that his request would be granted because he and his consultant told the Council they were unprepared and did not bring most of their supporters. But the crucial error was the developer’s excuse that he wanted time to be able to present the names of the tenants he had lined up for the project. 

Although nothing in the Building Code or established City practice requires a developer to provide a list of prospective tenants, the City Council suddenly decided that lack of such information was some sort of insidious plot. Mayor Prang said he could not vote on the project without knowing the flagship tenant, even though scores of projects have been approved without any tenants being secured before approval.

Indeed, given the passage of time due to construction and the fact that financing often delays ground breaking for years, it is understood that when a developers states a certain restaurant or retailer is going into the site, it is usually a tentative commitment at best unless the restaurant or retailer is an actual partner in the project.

John Heilman swelled up in self-righteous indignation about the lack of proposed tenants. Heilman raised the issue of what would happen if the project is built and then a tenant made an application to make changes in interior design of the project or change the ratio of retail to office space.

Heilman was being less than honest. Applications to make changes in projects to accommodate potential tenants happen all the time. Indeed, they are expected. No one believes that during the 50-60 year life expectancy of a building that some changes regarding the layout and use might not be needed.

Major changes all have to be approved by City Council and the Council can always reject them in order to protect the neighborhood from adverse impacts. But they are generally rubber stamped without much discussion. An example would be the recent conversion of Laurel Hardware on Santa Monica Boulevard from a hardware store to a restaurant/bar. Heilman has voted for hundreds of such modifications in his nearly three-decade reign so raising the issue as a basis for disapproving Centrum was disingenuous.

So why come up with intellectually dishonest excuses to vote against a project when voting it down based upon valid concerns about traffic circulation would serve the same purpose? Even if the Council had simply voted down the video signage, which is totally discretionary, that would have probably killed the project due to the fact it was a factor in the developer’s financing.

Now the plot thickens.

As we know, nothing at City Hall is ever straight forward. One of the most vocal opponents of the Centrum Sunset project has been its immediate neighbor to the west, the IAC building.

IAC was ably represented by politically well connected land-use attorney, Jeff Haber, whose name will be familiar to anyone who has been to our new library. IAC also hired lobbyist Steve Afriat. Mayor Prang never votes against a project or client represented by Mr. Afriat, a fact which Afriat proudly points out. It helps that Afriat is also Prang’s campaign consultant.

IAC’s concerns always seemed a bit suspect and it appears that IAC would buy the Tower Record site if the Centrum developer bailed.

That would explain why the City Council would not reject the Centrum project based upon traffic issues.

The Council went out of its’ way not to repudiate its own traffic study which claimed that Centrum would have no impacts on the neighborhood. If the Council had rejected the conclusions of their traffic study, then it might have adverse impact upon ICA if it ever purchased and developed the site.

The Council did not want to go on record as rejecting the project based upon the proposed signage. That might prove embarrassing in the future if IAC or another well connected developer requested similar signage rights.

Although I agreed with the Horn residents that the project should have been rejected, sometimes you have to question if the ends justify the means. While John Heilman claimed this project was too big, a few months ago he led the efforts to even though our own staff said the project was short by at least 100 parking spaces. As Steve Afriat was representing Marriott, it is not surprising that Council had no problem ignoring this rather glaring parking deficiency. 

So the Horn neighborhood can chalk up a temporary victory until IAC or some other developer takes interest in the site. Rather than addressing the fact that you can’t squeeze in as much development at Tower as the Code allows without creating gridlock, the City Council is keeping its options open for the next developer.

It makes you want to respect John Duran’s simplistic approach to development even if you don’t agree with it.

Steve Martin

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Manny August 29, 2012 at 02:51 AM
There were indeed supporters of this project a few council meetings back. But they were so rude, disrespectful and arrogant. Many seemed to be originally from Chicago (which I thought was odd).....I don't think that display won any points with the council either.
Rudolf Martin August 29, 2012 at 04:37 PM
not even the 4 council members who voted against the project were so bold as to claim that 'listening to the residents' was their main reason in denying this project.
Todd Bianco August 29, 2012 at 05:05 PM
I watched the Council meeting and this hearing. I can't believe that after all these years, the City Council finally decided to listen to the residents. I drive by this intersection almost daily and except for very early in the morning, It's always a goat f@#%. It's hard to imagine how bad it would be during construction let alone when it's open and busy. They did get one thing right during the meeting. The purpose of the Centrum building was the gigantic electronic billboard and the revenue it would generate. It would have been beyond annoying and distracting had it been approved. The whole project was only financially-viable with the billboard. I agree that the subtext behind the Council's decision may be to curry favor with IAC and Barry Diller. If IAC is interested in the real estate and buys it after this setback, it will be interesting to see how eager the Council will be to approve an IAC project on the same lot. If you want to see the real-time effect of over-development, take a walk, bike ride or drive over to La Brea between Fountain and Santa Monica Blvd. It's beyond bad now, can you imagine how fun it will be with all the commercial and residential units leased? And how about the addition of the Movietown Plaza project? Wow.
Don Jones August 29, 2012 at 09:13 PM
I'm not so quick to "respect John Duran’s simplistic approach to development" so I checked the campaign finance documents on the city's web site since Duran had set up the Duran Legal Defense Fund back in March. Lo and behold, there's no posting of his semi-annual statement which was due in June. The semi-annual Duran for City Council 2013 was posted. $38K was raised with about 20% of the donors listing WeHo as their address and almost every one of the 20% being a WeHo business or a commissioner. Did not see a donation from Sol Barket but then again maybe he donated to the legal defense fund.
Chloe Ross September 02, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Since this issue is not on the blighted Lower Eastside I have not followed it. I am sure the CC will do what's right. Just who they decide is right is another question


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