March 31, 2011 - From the March, 2011 issue

‘Skyline Changer'-Wilshire Grand Hotel- Wins Approval

The Los Angeles City Council approved a full package of agreements for the Wilshire Grand project-including a tax break, transfer of total floor area rights, a sign district, and the developer agreement-at the end of March. In so doing, the Wilshire Grand joins AEG's Farmers Field and the Grand Avenue projects as potentially catalytic mega-projects slated for Downtown. To commemorate the approval of the project, TPR is pleased to present the following excerpts of testimony in support and opposition of the project from the public and members of the City Council at one of the project's full council approval hearings.


Jan Perry

Councilmember Jan Perry: We have three items before us today: the development agreement, the transfer of floor area rights, and the 7th and Figueroa Sign District. I realize that my colleagues are familiar with this project, as this is the third time this development has come before this body. This is a groundbreaking project. It's the first time in 22 years there has been a high rise building constructed in Downtown Los Angeles.

Downtown is like no other place in the city of Los Angeles. We have a significant concentration of cultural assets, we have a burgeoning and growing sports and entertainment corridor, and housing at all income levels all in close proximity to each other. The signage that may be appropriate in Downtown is not necessarily appropriate in other areas.

Signage is an important part of Downtown's architectural context and contributes to the city's skyline. This particular proposed district provides a direct linkage to the Convention Center-it creates a visual urban dimension. The signage proposed is a new technology that has not been previously seen in the city of Los Angeles. The technology fully integrates into the curtain wall of the project. What the developers are proposing is not a billboard; it is not standard signage that has been seen in our city to date...

...We have an ordinance establishing the 7th and Figueroa Sign District before the council today, and the City Attorney's office has been tremendous in walking us through this process, step by step by step. My office has worked cooperatively with the office of the City Attorney and with the Department of City Planning on this ordinance, and has implemented all of the suggestions both from the City Attorney and the Planning Department at every step.

Today I introduce two technical amending motions, both of which reflect input and suggestions that we embrace from the City Attorney and from the Department of City Planning. One motion includes supplemental financing in support of adopting the sign district. The other motion includes the revised ordinance, which establishes project building thresholds before allowing signage, ensuring that sign rights are only provided when a truly iconic project is developed. The ordinance before the council today fully complies with the existing Sign Ordinance, which allows sign districts to be established on one block.

Additionally, the city has begun work on the proposed Figueroa Corridor Sign District, which will eventually link the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District to the Wilshire Grand redevelopment. The Figueroa Corridor Sign District under study will result in a cohesive planning effort addressing signage throughout the corridor, resulting in a comprehensive district with a unified character. The Figueroa Corridor is one of the most unique and dynamic destinations in the city.

Additional urban infill projects, such as the Wilshire Grand, are necessary to ensure the continued vitality of, not only the area, but of the city, so that we have an adequate number of hotel rooms to continue to increase our tourism numbers. Wilshire Grand is key to our redevelopment.

The current hotel looks small, substandard, and functionally obsolete. But what's even more noteworthy is that the city still lacks the requisite number of four-star hotel rooms to support Convention Center bookings and activities. A redeveloped hotel will increase that number of rooms and help attract more conventions to increase our city revenue.

The sign district will be a benefit to the city as a whole because the sign district requires that billboard signs must be removed from the South and South East Los Angeles, Central City, and Westlake Community Planning Areas before any other outside signs can be installed. Specifically, the sign district provides more than two square feet of scrolling, digital displays, and three square feet of digital displays for every square foot of billboard removed. The redevelopment of the Wilshire Grant provides $74 million in benefits, including the creation of 7,300 jobs in construction, and 9,700 new permanent jobs.

Also extremely noteworthy is that the redevelopment of this hotel will provide a host of meaningful benefits to the city of Los Angeles through a significant contribution to the general fund through new taxes and multiple public infrastructure improvements. This redevelopment will positively impact our General Fund by creating $22 million a year in new revenue beginning in 2015.

The Wilshire Grand redevelopment will purchase a maximum of $1.4 million square-feet of air rights from the convention center. This will allow the development increased floor area, and generate $7.4 million in public benefit payment to the city, which could be used in the area surrounding the development to mitigate impacts associated with the increased density.

Now this is going to be a huge project, because it applies planning principals and smart growth. It is a catalytic project because it will continue to contribute to the growth of our region, and it will increase tourism and bring much-needed jobs. Once completed, this project is projected to create $1.5 million in annual revenue for the city. A couple of this project would be a significant step in the right direction for our cities' economic future, and I ask...for your "aye" vote for the measure.

Jim Thomas, CEO, Thomas Properties Group: The economic circumstances that we find ourselves in today are very dire. We have a lot of unemployment. We have people who are losing their homes. The city of Los Angeles has been buried with a large deficit, and we desperately need investment to turn this around.

Part of the solution to this problem, I believe, is the development of the Downtown, and we're very proud, with Korean Air Lines, to be presenting to you the Wilshire Grand project, which is over a billion dollar project, consisting of a major hotel and office complex.

Downtown has been a place where our firm has been involved for over 30 years. We have built the majority of the Downtown projects, starting with what's now known as U.S. Bank, which used to be called Library Square, Wells Fargo Center, Gas Tower, and so on. We see this project as a continuation of the legacy that we have started here and the contribution that we have made to the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles. I urge everyone to vote in favor of this project.

Maria Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary, AFL-CIO: I'm here to urge support of this project going forward. The L.A. Federation of Labor represents thousands of workers in the county of Los Angeles who will be impacted by this. I urge all the supporters of working people to stand up to stand up right here in support of this project.

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On Saturday, close to 20,000 workers marched in Los Angeles. We took to the streets because what we need is respect for workers, supporting ourselves, with solidarity with each other, we're also supporting workers all across the country. Today we have an example for the rest of the country to see that collective bargaining works-with these employers, with this developer, sitting across the table with cooks and housekeepers and painters and ironworkers and electricians, all together saying, "Yes, we can make it work for Los Angeles." We want to create good jobs. We're committed to creating good jobs, we're going to put local Angelenos back to work. Korean Air has negotiated a fair agreement with the hotel staff that protects housekeepers and cooks and all the hospitality. We signed a project labor agreement with the building trades. This is a model, and there are so few models in Los Angeles, so few models across the country. We ask you, to not only support it, but to hold it up as an example that we want all employers and all developers to follow.

Barbara Brady, the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight: There is one small aspect of this project that is not receiving any discussion and that I'm sure most of the supporters of this project are completely unaware of. In medicine and public health, we seek to improve and protect the heath of individuals and the community. Our actions are guided by the commitment to do no harm.

Government has a similar purpose: to protect the public safety. Yet, there is one aspect of the Wilshire Grand proposed sign district that is particularly and especially troubling. And that is the permission to install electronic, off-site signage on the Francisco side that faces the Harbor Freeway 110 traffic. In this, you have abdicated your responsibility to protect our safety from these signs that are designed to catch the attention of all who pass.

Page 18 of the development agreement specifically exempts the signs from the hazard determination review procedures in code section 14.445. This is extremely troubling. The DOT has not been allowed to do its job. It endangers the health and safety of every person on that freeway, from highway workers to passengers to school bus drivers. We deserve to have a determination. The federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration commissioned a study that will determine electronic sign safety, and this city should grant no special permission to allow such signage until those studies are done. This endangers the city's liability; it endangers drivers and pedestrians. These are commercial billboards and a small aspect.

I implore you to not approve the Francisco signage that faces the 110 as you review this project. The protection of public safety should not be a negotiable better than, it should be a given.

Stuart Waldman, President of Valley Industry and Commerce Association: I'm here to strongly support his project and its signage. Signage like this is a distinguishing feature for top-tier downtowns the world over. The proposed signage provides needed connectivity and transition to L.A. Live in a competitive atmosphere. It also increases the excitement and vibrancy of the area for many tourists and downtown visitors as well. The Wilshire Grand SUD is the most extensively studied SUD in the city of Los Angeles, with robust provisions to reduce or eliminate impacts related to signage. The brightness levels of the signage have been adjusted down in response to concern from the neighbors at the Wedbush Building and at the 601 Wilshire and Princeton-Young buildings. The SUD includes takedown provisions for offsite signs and prohibitive supergraphics or LED panels. In addition, developers are providing $400,000 for the study of the additional SUD area adjacent to the project and toward the I & R study.

The developers worked with the City Attorney for over five months to ensure that the citywide legal issues will in no way be impacted. There are $74 million in community benefits being provided a result of these developers. Downtown is the right place for this type of signage. L.A. needs to move into the 21st century, and I urge your support.

Councilmember Bill Rosendahl: Separate the sign district from the project. Let's get people back to work. Let's build a beautiful hotel. And put the sign district on hold until we have more clarity. Look, if we approve the entirety of the sign district today, that will put the developer with a bigger muscle than the city. I say we put that on hold, we go forward with the project, and we see what kind of revenue stream we can get out of the sign district before we approve it. Thank you.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian: We have a unanimous opinion about the quality of this project. It's been a long and thorough analytical process. Unlike some other things that we've considered here that have been attempted to be expedited, this is something that's been going on for two years, and Ms. Perry has been sheparding it through this process in a very transparent way for two years.

I've spoken out often about the need to preserve communities and to recognize the difference between communities. In this case, we have the Downtown Neighborhood Council onboard, saying this is an important project to move forward with. We've got all the concessions that have been made in terms of project labor agreements and local hires that will be critically important to our local economy. We have benefits for the hotel construction now. This is a good project with the odds of moving forward.

There are issues, obviously, with the signage and with the architectural lighting. But folks, neighborhoods are different. What's appropriate in Downtown L.A. on the corner of Figueroa and Wilshire may not be appropriate on the Westside or in Studio City or in Cahuenga Pass or in other places. This project in this location is different than those other places.

When someone from Marina Del Ray complains about architectural lighting at this site, when the neighborhood council of this site is urging it to go forward, that just doesn't seem appropriate.

What we have is an investor willing to put a billion dollar investment in the future of Los Angeles, whose willing to take a gamble, step forward and say, "I believe in Los Angeles, and I'm putting a billion dollars on the line," which proves how committed they are to the future of Los Angeles. I just don't think this is the time, this is the hour, at this late stage in the game, to say, "Let's make some additional changes." We've got someone who is ready to go, these folks are ready to go back to work, we've got a critically, strategically important part of Downtown Los Angeles that we can change and bring life to an entire new area of Downtown Los Angeles.

It would be a mistake to continue to try to give provisions that will discourage not only this billion-dollar investor, but the next billion-dollar investor as well. I urge an "aye" vote.

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