Amid fierce opposition from area residents, West Hollywood’s Planning Commission unanimously denied approval of a controversial day care center at the old Spago restaurant site on the Sunset Strip on Thursday night. Meanwhile, the owner of that day care center raised charges of discrimination against families and said city staff mislead him about the approval process.
The Chalk Preschool was applying to convert the famed Spago restaurant site at 1114 Horn Ave., just above Sunset Boulevard, into a daycare center for up to 73 children, ages 2 to 6. Residents in the West Hollywood Heights area turned out in large numbers to oppose it, citing concerns about extra traffic on the steep, narrow Horn Avenue as parents dropped off and picked up their children as well as the noise from children playing on the playground the preschool proposed to build.
Doug Oleff, owner of Chalk Preschools, which has locations in Westwood, Venice, Pasadena and Manhattan Beach, told WEHOville he was completely caught off guard by the neighborhood protests, saying that the city’s planning department assured him approval would be a “slam dunk.” Because of that assurance, Oleff reported that he had already signed a ten-year, $16,000 a month lease for the site.
“It really is a disappointment for what I believed West Hollywood was, and is partially, and that is a family-oriented town,” Oleff told the commission after hearing more than 20 public commenters speak against the project. “This was discrimination against families and children and you guys don’t want them here. Nobody wants them. Nobody wants families or children. They want Sunset Strip, bars, strip clubs, pedophiles. I think it’s very, very revolutionary that we’re trying to bring a legitimate good use.”
Oleff told WEHOville he will likely appeal the decision to the City Council. He also reported he had already spent $100,000 on plans and applications for the preschool.
The commissioners were sympathetic to the residents’ traffic concerns, Commissioner David Aghaei calling the school’s drop-off and pick-ups on Horn Avenue plan, “a recipe for driving disaster.” Meanwhile, Commissioner Stacey Jones said, “As someone who used to work at the IAC buildings, I know what [the Horn-Holloway-Sunset] intersection is like. We don’t need any more cars there than we already have.”
However, the commission was far more concerned about the impacts approval of the school would bring to other businesses on the Sunset Strip, an area known worldwide for its nightlife as well as its proliferation of billboards. City ordinances prohibit adult-oriented businesses such as bars and nightclubs within 1,000 feet of a school. Similarly, medical marijuana dispensaries would be prohibited within 500 feet and racy billboards would likely not be allowed in close proximity to the school.
“When we have something as special as the Sunset Strip, we protect it,” said Commissioner Shelia Lightfoot, explaining her opposition to the preschool. “[Approving] this would be like a very little dog, this school, wagging a gigantic dog, which is the Sunset Strip. The idea that we would have to constrain businesses that we try to welcome to the Sunset Strip because of the proximity to a brand new school is bizarre. We won’t let a new business come in and interfere with a school if we think it’s an inappropriate business activity. I do not know why the code allows a school to go into an area where there already exists what would be considered inappropriate business activities.”
Commissioner Donald DeLuccio agreed, saying the school was not compatible with the General Plan, which guides development in the city.
Lightfoot also pointed out that the City Council had recently commissioned a study to examine ways to enhance the Sunset Strip’s nightlife reputation and attract more adult/entertainment-oriented businesses.
Residents were quick to criticize city staff for not holding a neighborhood meeting to get input about the school. Doug Oleff filed his application to open the preschool in early May 2016, but Elyse Eisenberg, who heads the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, reports she only learned of the proposed school in mid-November when a sign noticing the public hearing went up in front of the Spago site. Oleff told WEHOville that city staffers told him a neighborhood meeting was not necessary.
“There should have been a neighborhood meeting and it should have come much earlier in this process,” Eisenberg told WEHOville. “That could have saved [Doug Oleff] a lot of money, and frustration.”
Because of the zoning codes along the Sunset Strip, Chalk Preschool would have needed approval of a minor conditional use permit (M-CUP) before it could open. Normally something as simple as an M-CUP is handled in a director’s hearing with the Community Development director, Stephanie DeWolfe giving her OK. However, as letters of opposition began pouring in from residents, DeWolfe opted to send the M-CUP hearing to the full Planning Commission for approval instead.
Eisenberg told WEHOville the Spago location has been vacant since 2000 when famed restauranteur Wolfgang Puck moved his renowned restaurant to Beverly Hills. Eisenberg reported at one point in the mid 2000s, rent on the building was $45,000 a month, but there were no takers due in large part to the small lot having minimal space for parking, something severely limiting what businesses can go into the building. A city report lists Michael Wilson as the property owner, but Eisenberg said the property is owned by a family trust (she could not remember the family’s name), but managed by a property agent.
For a preschool, city zoning code requires one parking space for every ten children and Chalk Preschool proposed to create a 10-space parking lot immediately north of the building for parents to drop off and pick up their children (employees would have to park offsite). However, commissioners criticized that parking plan, noting that the parking layout would not work as proposed.
Likewise, to minimize an influx of traffic on Horn Avenue during morning and evening rush hours, Chalk planned to offer staggered drop-off and pick-up times as well as half-day options for its children. Chalk provides a variety of options at its other locations, ranging from $1,720 per month for full day, five-days-a-week tuition to $515 per month for half days, twice a week. Presumably, West Hollywood tuition prices would have been in a similar range.
Eisenberg reported there are no children over age 2 living in West Hollywood Heights and that the United States Census listed just 300 children living in the 90069 zip code, which includes the western portion of West Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills up to Mulholland Drive.
“A preschool is not conducive to what the Strip is all about,” Eisenberg said during public comment.
Resident Amanda Goodwin, a candidate for the West Hollywood City Council, criticized Oleff during public comment for not doing his due diligence about the area before filing his application. Cynthia Blatt, another City Council candidate, suggested the preschool would be welcomed in other parts of the city, just not on the Sunset Strip.
Meanwhile, one resident came out to speak in favor of the project. Jake La Joie, who lives on Larrabee Street, said he is much more bothered by noise from the Strip in the early morning hours than worried about noise from the daycare center’s playground. La Joie told WEHOville he had no connection to Chalk Preschools, but was troubled by the way residents were rallying against the school.
Residents also raised concerns about several registered sex offenders living in the West Hollywood Heights area. It was unclear how a preschool moving into the area would affect their status since sex offenders whose crimes involved children are prohibited under California law from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks.
Commissioners John Altschul and Sue Buckner both recused themselves from the hearing since they live within 500 feet of the Spago site.