It has been more than two years since the Cohen Brothers began working with Los Angeles County to develop the bus depot at Santa Monica and San Vicente into a megamall, and yet the process has been cloaked in secrecy.
This MTA megamall is exemplary of the worst development practices in our city, whereby plans are made and renderings are drawn before the community is engaged. As City Council member, I will just say “NO” to developers who ignore the community and threaten the character of the neighborhoods where they wish to build.
On Tuesday, the West Hollywood City Council gets one of its first formal opportunities to weigh in on the MTA megamall proposed at the corner of Santa Monica and San Vicente.
It’s gratifying to hear some City Council members change their tune from their usual, “build! build! build!” script, but because the current plans include construction of a new City Hall, one must assume that some of them, or someone working for them, has had a hand in the development of the proposal before them, regardless of what they say.
Because I have not been a “yes man” to the city’s developers, many people have asked me what kind of developments I could support as a City Council member.
In nearly two decades of civic engagement in the city of West Hollywood, I have supported many new businesses — like JK Hotel Group’s San Vicente Inn, Cooley’s and Skynny Kitchen — and opposed others I thought were playing fast and loose with the law, like Restoration Hardware on Melrose or the two Townscape developments on Beverly Boulevard and at Crescent Heights on Sunset.
For me, the standard is quite simple. If plans fit within the zoning ordinance and don’t need any bonuses, exemptions or variances, then it is your right to build. But if a developer wants something from the city, because they want to build bigger or taller than what’s allowed, then they have to come in with broad community support and give something back to the community.
As a market research professional, I work with companies to test out products and messages, to see how people react before a product goes to market. If responses are less than great, we keep working with people to get it right before moving ahead. It seems the development process in West Hollywood works just the opposite — plans are developed, and put forth with a take it or leave it attitude while lobbyists find just enough city stakeholders to come out in support to give political cover to the City Council.
Developers must recognize that when they come to our city, they are proposing to become neighbors, and what they leave behind will permanently alter a neighborhood.
Common decency suggests that anyone proposing to change the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people, would want to talk to them first, find out what they want and need and listen to their concerns before hiring an army of architects, lawyers and lobbyists to move a project forward. That’s called being a good neighbor and would serve any developer well. Any residents who had meaningful input in the development of a proposal are more likely to support it.
In addition to coming in with broad community support, projects that require a development agreement should come with public benefits more substantial than the million dollar checks currently accepted by the City Council. They should provide more parking than required by code, and make it available to the public at reasonable prices. If a development includes a housing element, a significant percentage of units should be put into a “housing affordability covenant” to create new rent-controlled housing units for people making median incomes. These are real public benefits that we should be negotiating for from developers like the Cohen Brothers.
A proposal such as the MTA megamall should have never gotten this far without extensive public engagement and participation. Although the City Council will likely ask the MTA to let their agreement with Cohen Brothers expire in two months, their acquiescence to the shadowy process and collaboration on plans to build a new City Hall to date reveals their true intentions.
If we want to change the future of West Hollywood, and protect our neighborhoods, we have to change the City Council. We can do that on March 3rd.
Lauren Meister is a candidate in the March 3 election for the West Hollywood City Council.