Cohen Brothers, MTA Reach Exclusive Agreement For Proposed Mega Complex at WeHo Depot

A “preliminary conceptual development view” of the proposed project shows how the 10.9-acre site would look from Santa Monica Boulevard. Cohen Brothers is proposing to build a multi-building complex in place of the current MTA depot. Included in the project would be office space in two high-rises, residential/hotel space, retail shops, a theater complex, an open amphitheater and a new sheriff’s station.

Pacific Design Center owner Charles Cohen has entered into an exclusive agreement with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to present proposals for developing a massive multi-use complex, comparable to Century City’s mall, with office, hotel, residential and retail space on the MTA bus depot lot on the southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente Boulevard in West Hollywood.

The proposed project would cover 10.9 acres, the equivalent of 10 football fields, and extend beyond the scope of many other LA shopping centers like The Grove, in nearby Los Angeles, or Americana at Brand, in Glendale.

At its Jan. 16 meeting, the MTA’s Planning and Programming Committee approved a two-year exclusive negotiating agreement with Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation of California (CBRCC) to create a master plan for a mixed-use development on the 8.4-acre lot, immediately north of the Pacific Design Center (PDC). The plan also absorbs the 2.5 acre West Hollywood sheriff’s station lot, bringing the entire project to 10.9 acres.

The full 13-member Metro Board also approved the exclusive agreement on the consent calendar at its Jan. 24 meeting.

Cohen Brothers proposes to build a 280-space, three-level underground garage for MTA bus storage, maintenance and operations, then create a multi-building complex atop that garage. That complex would include 400,000 square feet of commercial office space in two high-rise towers, 600,000 square feet of residential/hotel space, 120,000 square feet of retail shops, a 2,500-seat movie theater complex and an 800-seat open amphitheater, plus a 50,000-square-foot sheriff’s station.

Charles Cohen did not immediately return WEHOville’s request for comment, but during a Jan 21 phone interview he denied having any plans for the site.

“We are of course interested in it (the MTA lot) in a neighborly way, we would like to see it developed in a proper and responsible way,” Cohen said. He later added, “We have no plans for that site.”

However, according to the staff report for the Jan. 16 MTA Planning and Programming Committee meeting, Cohen Brothers submitted an unsolicited proposal in October 2011 informing the MTA it had the experience and the financial capacity to replace the existing bus depot and build a mixed-use project.

No other proposals for the lot were considered because the MTA didn’t request any. According to the staff report, MTA CEO Arthur T. Leahy made a “finding that the CBRCC proposal meets the principles of exception from the competitive solicitation process.” The report does not spell out what those “principles of exception” are, but it does say that the PDC’s location next to the area gives Cohen Brothers “unique advantages.” Cohen Brothers “possesses a significantly enhanced ability to provide a feasible project plan,” it says.

Since the sheriff’s lot is owned by Los Angeles County, any development on that lot would require approval from the LA County Board of Supervisors.

It is not clear if Cohen Brothers has approached the county yet, but three of the five supervisors (Mark Ridley-Thomas, Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich) sit on the five-member MTA Planning and Programming Committee.

The sheriff’s station was built in 1980, and designed for approximately 110 staff members. The sheriff’s station currently houses a staff of 183 people and reserves of 75 additional staff members. Sheriff’s personnel stated at the June 18, 2012 West Hollywood city council meeting that there is so little room left in the building that some deputies keep equipment in the trunk of their personal cars.

If the county approves use of the sheriff’s lot, Cohen Brothers would then commission an environmental impact report (EIR). Public hearings about the site would also be held, but an exact timetable for those hearings is not yet known.

In 2008, following inquiries about possible joint development options for the lot, the MTA commissioned architectural firm RNL Design to evaluate the site for “potential transit-oriented mixed-use development.” The study, completed in 2009, declared the cost was “too high for a private development to support and remain viable.”

The staff report does not say who made those inquiries in 2008, but Cohen has long been rumored to be interested in the site according to WEHOville design critic Gustave Heully.

While the exclusive negotiating agreement lasts two years, the plan approved allows for two six-month extensions. Under the agreement, the MTA bus depot must remain fully operational during any construction. The MTA is leaving it up to Cohen Brothers to submit an “interim operating plan,” which could include continued use of the current site, a separately located site, or both.

The site would be developed in multiple phases, the underground bus depot being would be the first phase. As part of the agreement, Cohen Brothers would provide the MTA full compensation for any increased operating costs during construction and operation of the project.

Cohen Brothers has hired the LA-based architecture firm Gruen Associates, which designed the PDC under the leadership of renowned architect Cesar Pelli (who was Gruen’s director of design in the 1970s), to come up with plans for the site.

The MTA lot was originally the depot for the streetcar line owned by the Los Angeles Pacific Railway. After the streetcar was discontinued, the northern portion of the site was transferred to the MTA. The current lot was built in 1976 with space for 250 buses plus 275 cars in the parking deck immediately adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard.

The southern portion of that lot was sold to create the Pacific Design Center. The Blue building opened in 1975, the Green building in 1988 and the Red building is set to open later this year. Cohen Brothers bought the PDC in 1999 for $165 million.

The city of West Hollywood has had its eye on the MTA lot for years. Part of the city’s 2012-2014 budget included a $212,000 feasibility study for moving city hall to that corner and incorporating a new sheriff’s station into the new city hall building.

During that June 18, 2012 meeting, Councilmember John Duran spoke of his dream for the MTA and sheriff’s lots, saying he had long envisioned having the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard look like the north side of the street, lined with shops and businesses. Duran, who is up for reelection in the March 5 election, has made developing the MTA lot one of his campaign talking points.

WEHOville design critic Gustave Heully contributed to this story.

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