September 30, 1993 - From the September, 1993 issue

Park La Brea Project Sails Thru City Hall: How & Why?

by Burt Pines and Dale J. Goldsmith 

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved one of the few major development projects in the city to have survived the current recession. This Forest City Development project is to be developed on three non-contiguous parcels of property within or adjacent to the existing Park La Brea residential development, and on a fourth parcel at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire (the May Company site). 

The Park La Brea sites will involve the construction of a total of 1,597 apartment units, including 216 congregate living units for seniors, 43 of which will be reserved for lower income seniors. The May Company site will consist of 846,000 square feet of office space in a 17-story building, a 23-story building, and the original May Company building (which will be adaptively reused); 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant uses; and 250-room hotel. Entitlements granted by the city include general plan amendments and zone/height district changes for all four parcels under the City's Major Plan Review (big batch) procedures, conditional use permits for the hotel and for the sale of alcohol for on- and off-site consumption at the May Company site, and a fifteen-year development agreement. 

The history of the Park La Brea project is a good example of consensus planning. It also highlights the positive role that the Council office can play in the approval process. Forest City originally proposed to develop the May Company with a regional shopping center. The developer went so far as to have prepared a draft environmental impact report for this project and to conduct key group meetings with the community. 

In response to the concerns of the community and Councilman John Ferraro, the developer changed the commercial development from a regional shopping center to an office/hotel development. Because of this change, the city Planning Department required the preparation of a new supplemental draft EIR. This resulted in an additional year-and-a­half delay while the city Planning Department's Environmental Review Section processed the supplemental EIR. 

The first public hearings on the project were held on December 3, 1991. Forest City's representatives were able to persuade the city Planning Department to hold a joint hearing before the Hearing Examiner and Zoning Administrator to consider all of the various entitlements in a single hearing. More than 100 people appeared in opposition to the proposed demolition of the May Company building, including the Los Angeles Conservancy. 

In response to the concerns of the community, and at the urging of the Council office, the developer agreed to substantially preserve and adaptively reuse the May Company building for office uses. It also reduced the density of the commercial and residential components to minimize the project's traffic impacts. Thereafter, in an unusual tum of events, the city Planning Commission approved more residential density than requested by the developer in order to meet a perceived need for housing in the area. At the same time. the Commission set aside 25 percent of the dwelling units for low income residents. 

The City Council ultimately agreed with Forest City's representatives that the inclusionary housing requirement was excessive. With the preservation of the May Company building, Forest City was already required to pay or contribute approximately $20 million in fees and other exactions. The project would simply not be viable if the developer were also required to set aside one-fourth of the dwelling units for low income housing. 

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Forest City's various concessions resulted in a project which was less dense than the original project or any of the alternatives analyzed in the supplemental EIR. In order to minimize the risk of a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act, we prepared over 70 pages of detailed findings showing that the conclusions set forth in the supplemental EIR were still relevant, notwithstanding the reduced size of the project. Although CEQA requires the City Council to make such findings in connection with certifying an EIR, it is typically up to the applicant's attorneys to actually draft the findings. 

The local economy deteriorated significantly during the almost five years that it took to obtain the necessary entitlements. Today's market conditions are not optimal for the project's office or hotel component. However, the developer has entered into a development agreement with the city which has the effect of "locking in" the entitlements for a period of 15 years. Thus, the developer retains the option to postpone development until the market improves without the fear of losing the entitlements through downzoning, moratoria, or similar growth control measures. 

Because development agreements are contracts between the city and the developer, the city usually requires special consideration for agreeing to limit its police powers during the term of the agreement. In this case, the developer was required to substantially preserve the original May Company building, construct tennis courts at Pan Pacific Park or another suitable location in the area, construct a wall around the Hancock Park School to reduce traffic noise, fund the Fairfax trolley, implement a pedestrian production program for local streets in the area, and provide a rental priority in the project's apartment units for workers in the office and hotel component. Several of these items could not be legally imposed on the project absent a development agreement because they do not meet the "nexus” requirements set forth in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. Thus, both the City and the developer have benefited from the development agreement. 

Due to the project's size, scope and central location, many residents and community organizations closely monitored the project’s entitlement process. These organizations served different constituencies and had different and sometimes conflicting agendas. For example, the Los Angeles Conservancy fought to preserve the May Co. building, while others wanted the building demolished in order to provide additional traffic lanes on Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. Through numerous community meetings and with the help of the Council office, a consensus was ultimately forged. At the final City Council meeting in the matter, no one spoke against the project. This was a remarkable achievement in light of the controversy which surrounds most significant development in the city. 

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