April 1, 2010 - From the March, 2010 issue

Casden Engages Community to Win Approval of Movietown Plaza

The West Hollywood City Council last month approved the Movietown Plaza project after the city's planning commission unexpectedly had rejected the proposal just weeks before. The City Council's approval came as a result of extensive engagement between the developer, Casden Properties LLC, and the community, which the council recognized as a benefit to the overall livability of the project. In order to detail this project and other mixed use projects in the works by Casden Properties, TPR was pleased to speak with the company's founder, and local philanthropist, Alan Casden.


Alan Casden

Your West Hollywood Movie-town Plaza development project was recently approved. Elaborate on the approval process; what did you gain and lose by going through such a lengthy and tortuous process?

I wouldn't say it was a tortuous process. It may have been an arduous, lengthy process. We found the city of West Hollywood to be most cooperative. We engaged our neighbors and the people concerned with the area in West Hollywood. They became active participants in the planning process and then became advocates for our project. We found that once they became engaged and understood that the project has many attributes and amenities that will benefit the neighborhood, they took pride in ownership of the pieces they were able to add in the planning and discussion process. Because they took ownership, they had a vested interest in seeing the project approved.

Share more regarding the Movietown Plaza site, including project specifics.

The site is on Santa Monica Boulevard, two blocks west of La Brea. We have two buildings along Santa Monica Boulevard that are four- and five-stories, each stepping up an additional story at the rear. Both buildings have residences above ground floor retail, with a public plaza between the two buildings. The eastern building will include 76 senior affordable rental units. Half of those will be low income and half will be very-low income. The community and the neighborhood are interested in having brand new, well-designed affordable senior housing in an area where it is sorely needed. As you know, low income and very-low income housing are in desperately short supply throughout the greater L.A. area. We were glad to add that as part of our project.

The western building will be a five- and six-story residential project, with retail on the ground floor.

Trader Joe's, who occupies the site right now, has signed a letter with us stating that they would like to be a part of the new project. We are pleased to have them as our anchor retailer at Palazzo Westwood Village and are working out the details now to retain them at Movietown. We also have received a letter of interest from Wells Fargo bank and expect to fill the remaining retail with cafes around the plaza. We intend to create an architectural feature in the plaza, perhaps a fountain, which will invite people to sit and congregate and also enhance the outdoor dining ambiance for the cafes. The city of West Hollywood has been very positive about the public spaces we're providing.

Interior to the site, we've created an additional public space that we call a mews, behind the front two buildings, separated from the back portion of the property. Retail will end up in that space as well. Behind that we have two ten-story buildings. In between those towers will be a central courtyard-an expansive courtyard with a large pool, gardens, and recreational facilities-attractive amenities and attributes for the residents of those towers.

What attracts you to this part of Santa Monica Boulevard and West Hollywood and aligns your development with the city's staff and council? What is it about this infill opportunity that works?

It's a chance for us to provide high-density, new, attractive, and well-designed housing in an area that has lacked it. It's in a redevelopment area that gives us an opportunity to invigorate an area and create a type of housing that we're known for. We have provided high-density projects most recently over at Park La Brea, Westwood, and toward the airport. We're always looking for infill sites with compatible surrounding uses that allow for density; this particular case was a tremendous opportunity, both for us and the city's redevelopment area.

So mixed-use infill fits into West Hollywood's redevelopment plans?

Exactly. This is a mixed-use project in an area not far from Park La Brea, not far from Hollywood, with existing retail businesses along Santa Monica Boulevard. This is a multi-faceted project with great variety. We're creating a significant economic engine for the redevelopment area by bringing complementary elements together in a really well thought out and well planned way.

A big reason it will work is that we were able to implement a lot of the suggestions and the desires of the local community. We are always willing to listen. We like to incorporate suggestions and be involved with communities to develop projects that enhance not just our site, but the entire neighborhood.

Why was the West Hollywood Planning Commission's "no" vote reversed by the West Hollywood City Council?

One of the interesting aspects of working in a redevelopment area is that the city of West Hollywood has a planning advisory commission (PAC) that we worked with for a very long time in evolving this project. The plan that came out of our community based planning process had been played with, reformed, and responded to by that committee. Then it went to the planning commission, which clearly didn't spend as much time as the PAC did with it. Basically it was time for a decision to be made and the planning commission appeared to be hesitant about the totality of the reformed project so the move was to pass it on to the city council.

It wasn't so much a rejection as it was that the PAC had spent so much time developing the project and was ready to go forward, we did not feel that spending additional time with the planning commission was going to be to anyone's benefit.

Elaborate on why the Movietown Plaza project makes sense in today's real estate environment. Your project is a large, multi-faceted infill project-proposed at a time when many in the real estate marketplace think that there's little current upside for commercial, or retail, and even for residential.

We are planning to proceed immediately for the development of this project in phases. Right now we are planning the design and implementation of the front part of the project. Certainly the senior element of the project will work right away and almost two-thirds of the commercial is already spoken for.

We'll be able to avail ourselves of many different types of financing because of the senior housing. That stuff will go right ahead and will work very well toward reaching our overall goals in the project. As we complete the front of the project, we will continuously evaluate where the market is and plan appropriately.

You also have a project at 3rd and Ogden in L.A. Could you elaborate on that project, its hurdles, and on the opportunity?

That's another project where we're seeking to create density by bringing height into the area. Again, surrounding compatible uses create opportunities for density. There already is height in the neighborhood with Park La Brea and the huge parking structure next to The Grove. We seek to do transit-oriented development near major thoroughfares, and 3rd and Ogden is in an area where people have shopping, recreation and amenities available without getting into a car. It's an area where people want to live.

Another similarity to West Hollywood is that we're seeking to create housing for seniors, in this case both affordable and market-rate.

We don't feel that rental housing has been as effected as the rest of the marketplace. Especially if it's at higher density sites, we can bring in the price ranges that are affordable in terms of the marketplace.

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Where is this mid-Wilshire project in the city's approval process?

Right now we're waiting for the Planning Department to decide whether we need to do a localized EIR or a mitigating negative declaration. These are projects that I've discussed with the director of planning for the city of Los Angeles. She and the city want transit-oriented development incorporating much needed housing.

Is Pico and Sepulveda also an attractive market? Elaborate on your plans there.

Pico and Sepulveda is also in an area where people want to live. Our project there is an ultimate example of transit-oriented development because it is contiguous and adjacent to the Expo Line, and will have a station that enters directly into the project. With this development, it will be possible for a family that works in both Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles to go to their places of employment and then come home to shop and do their marketing, all without getting into a car.

What new opportunities in Los Angeles should our readers be gleaning from your current investments? What's the business model that works in this real estate market at this time?

I don't know if we're qualified to answer that, we can only speak to our own projects and our developments and what we're trying to do. If you're in the real estate development business you have to look for your own opportunities.

All I can tell you is that we work hard with the community and with local government to create successful projects. They take significant amounts of time-four or five years in planning and two to three years to put them in place. In this business you must have a horizon longer than one year because to put in place projects like Westwood, the Palazzos over on 3rd Street, the Villas on 6th Street, Movietown in West Hollywood and others, you need a long term horizon of at least five to six years. You have to have some vision to understand where people want to live and what the future holds.

If people want to live in the city of Los Angeles, I say "Just make where you are, your city, the best place to live." I'm not worried about whether they're going to want to live in my development because regardless, I'm building the best development I can. I'm in the affordable housing business, and people should have a good attractive place to live. I'm also in the luxury housing business and if it's a luxury apartment in Westwood the quality of housing that I've executed there is still affordable in that price range for that quality of housing.

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Given the development projects now on your plate, can we assume that Los Angeles' real estate markets are showing signs of new life?

I wouldn't call it new life. We've been alive for about 35 years now. So we've been around a long time. We don't do these for practice. We try to bring successful projects. So far we haven't had a failure.

In terms of our development and people in Sepulveda, we're going to provide jobs: 1,000 full-time jobs and temporary construction jobs for 1,600 or 1,700 people. That's one of the things we have to focus on in the city of Los Angeles. How do we bring jobs to this city? If there are jobs, people want to live here and it's in the long-term beneficial interests of our communities.

The other thing to note is that these projects don't displace any existing housing. It's creating new housing without displacing anyone. It's creating new housing without displacing rent-controlled apartments. It's a plus-plus in every direction.

There was a court decision recently, Palmer v. City of Los Angeles, which effectively rolled back affordable housing set-asides and inclusionary zoning throughout the state. How does that affect the way you and cities interact today, if at all?

It really doesn't have an effect because when we're looking at projects, we're looking at reasons for doing things and how to pay for the elements that are being requested of us. If we need to create some inclusionary housing or include affordable housing in the project, every jurisdiction knows there has to be something that helps pay for it and offsets those costs. Therefore, it's just a way of looking at what is the right density to support all the elements that are going to go into a project.

In the Palmer situation it's a little bit different because in the way it was set forth you had a density but the density didn't give any bonuses for doing anything. It was more of a penalty for doing things. The decision for Palmer was specific really to Palmer. It means when a city moves forward now in future projects they have to give consideration to a project with or a project without and set the framework differently-that's all.

You are active not only in real estate but also as a philanthropist. What is your take on the health of metropolitan L.A. given the financial crunch, layoffs, and forced reorganizations? What must be done to for our cities and neighborhoods to prosper going forward?

Schools put California in the forefront and made us the golden land of opportunity. Now we have to go back and revisit our educational systems. California has fallen so far behind. This state has great universities that are still significant. We need to make sure that we're keeping those where they are because people who go to universities here will stay and work. They're the cutting edge of biotech, high-tech, and in new economic opportunities.

We need a state and cities that attract capital investment because capital investment creates jobs. Government doesn't create jobs; capital investment creates jobs, and blocking new development stifles growth and doesn't enhance the quality of our lifestyle or our lives.

As you know, I spend a tremendous amount of time on holocaust issues, both in Israel and here in the United States, I'm on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council as well as having built and was co-chairman of the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and am still involved with that. That is very fulfilling to me, and it was very personally satisfying to see holocaust survivors who came and spoke in favor of our project before the West Hollywood city council.

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.