The West Hollywood Planning Commission Thursday night postponed action on a proposed development on Ogden Drive during a fractious hearing that included challenges by Commissioner Sheila Lightfoot to the city’s General Plan and allegations by City Council candidate Cole Ettman that the commissioners were accepting gifts from developers.
The public hearing also illustrated the degree to which housing development has become an issue in local politics, and especially in the upcoming June 2 City Council election. It attracted anti-development activists such as Stephanie Harker and Cynthia Blatt, who have criticized most recent development projects, claiming they cause parking problems, contribute to the drought and harm the look and feel of city neighborhoods. It also drew comments from Planning Commissioners who said the city should not shut its doors to new residents.
“This is the most desirable area in the country to live, and West Hollywood is perhaps one of the most desirable places in Southern California to live,” Commissioner John Altschul said. “Not only can’t we help that, I think we should rejoice in that. The city has created a sensational community where people want to come. The people that were here, they welcomed us when we came. Let’s not be the kind of people that say ‘We’ve got ours, let’s close the doors’.”
Commissioner Roy Huebner recalled that he moved to West Hollywood in 1989 and moved into an apartment because he couldn’t afford a house. “We shouldn’t be restricting the number of units that we have and putting more upward pressure on the demand and making the prices go even higher,” he said. “It’s just going to become more and more exclusive… By limiting the inventory we are just going to create more pressure on the inventory that exists.”
Lightfoot was named to the Planning Commission in April by newly elected City Councilmember Lauren Meister, who is known for her opposition to increased housing in West Hollywood. During the hearing her criticism of aspects of the General Plan drew objections from various Planning Commission members who noted that their job is to decide whether a project meets the city’s requirements not to critique the existing zoning regulations or the General Plan adopted by the City Council. The General Plan, adopted in 2011 after numerous public hearings, is required by the state. It is meant to reflect “how, when, and where the city should develop and change as a place to live, to work, and to invest … developers use it to understand the City’s development needs, preferences, and physical parameters,” the plan states.
Among Lightfoot’s concerns was that the area of Ogden Drive south of Santa Monica where the project is proposed is zoned for medium density development although currently there are a number of single family homes in the area. Antonio Castillo, a city planner, explained that the zoning reflects the anticipated development of the area and that medium density development is permitted from Ogden to Martel Avenue south of Santa Monica Boulevard.
While Lightfoot’s questioning of the city’s General Plan and zoning regulations clearly annoyed some of her fellow commissioners, it was Ettman’s accusations that drew angry responses from them.
During a period when members of the public are allowed to comment, Ettman said: ” We don’t want a zoning code that allows for buildings two times the size of what’s next door. And what else has to change is the (City) Council. The Council entrenched with developers. And Planning Commissioners, with $500 steak dinners and bottles of wine with the applicants to learn about their projects, and Planning Commissioners who run for office and accept contributions from developers that they are going to vote a project on. It’s time to take the money out of City Hall. It’s time to take the money out of the Planning Commission.”
Ettman’s remarks drew a quick and heated response from Planning Commissioner Marc Yeber. “Who are you accusing?” Yeber asked Ettman, who declined to respond. “That’s playing fast and loose with the truth,” said Altschul. “You are entitled to have your own opinion but not your own facts,” said Commissioner Heidi Shink, who also is a candidate in the June 2 City Council election.
Ettman’s accusation about accepting money from developers clearly was directed at Shink, whose opponents claim she accepted a campaign donation from the developer of the controversial 826 N. Kings Rd. project. While the developer did make a contribution to Shink, her campaign has returned it. Shink herself has sparked controversy for voting for that project as a Planning Commissioner and then urging the City Council to reject it after beginning her campaign for office.
The Ogden Drive project would demolish four single-family houses that are occupied by renters and replace them with 21 condominium units in three buildings, three of which will be rented to low- or moderate-income people.
The project was largely supported by Altschul and Huebner. ” I actually think that these designs are refreshing and maybe they will start some better designs in the neighborhood,” Heubner said. “… This applicant has played by the rules of the road.”
Altschul said he believed the project met the city’s zoning requirements and that while the Planning Commission had some discretion in approving it, he believed its decision “should fall in favor of providing housing for people.”
Yeber said he was concerned that in constructing three separate building on three separate lots the builder was removing street parking in three places to provide access to underground parking structures. He also questioned the amount of shade or shadows that the buildings would cast on one another and adjacent properties. Commissioner Donald DeLuccio said he shared Yeber’s concerns.
Shink, who has taken a stand against new housing development since she began her City Council race, opposed the project, noting that residents of the four single-family homes would be evicted because of it.
The Commission’s vote entitles the developer to come back before it with changes to the project that might satisfy Yeber and DeLuccio’s concerns.