Is AKA West Hollywood at 8500 Sunset Boulevard operating as a hotel as the City of West Hollywood contends, or as a full-service luxury apartment complex, as its owner Korman Communities contends?
West Hollywood’s Planning Commission was charged with making that determination during its Thursday night meeting but opted to delay the hearing until its April 19 meeting.
At issue are interpretations of the city’s zoning ordinances, the first time in the city’s 34-year history the Planning Commission has been asked to make such a clarification. Terms such a “long-term basis” and “short-term basis” are not clearly defined in the zoning ordinances, but are crucial for making a decision regarding whether AKA WeHo is operating as a hotel, something for which the property is not approved.
While the city provided a large staff report with documents supporting its case, as well as papers supporting Korman’s case, the commissioners wanted to see the development agreement (first approved by the City Council in 1999 and amended in 2005 and 2011) regarding the project.
Although several commissioners requested that 200-plus-page document on Monday, they didn’t receive it until they arrived at the hearing on Thursday night. Feeling they did not have sufficient time to study the development agreement and make an informed decision, they voted 4-2 to postpone the hearing for a month.
The Commission debated whether to start the hearing on Thursday night, knowing they would need to continue the hearing to give them time to study the document. City attorney Lauren Langer advised if they knew from the outset they would continue the hearing, it was likely better to delay starting it. Otherwise, the commissioners would have to be especially careful about their interactions with the public and avoid receiving any information connected to the project during the interim between the two meetings.
While a WEHOville advance story about the hearing generated many reader comments, only a few people turned out for the hearing on Thursday night. Commissioner Stacey Jones voted against the delay, feeling that handful of people should be heard since they were already present. Meanwhile, Commissioner Adam Bass also voted against the delay, saying he had had sufficient time to study the document and felt adequately prepared. Commissioner David Aghaei was absent.
In June 2017, Korman Communities and Brookfield Properties Group purchased the two residential towers of the project, located on the southwest corner of Sunset and La Cienega boulevards, from the Los Angeles-based CIM Group, which built the project.
The project’s east tower, the one closest to La Cienega, includes 80 residential units which Korman is renting as unfurnished apartments with one-year leases. The west tower, the one along Sunset Boulevard, includes 110 residential units, which Korman is renting as furnished apartments with leases starting at 30 days.
The west tower is the one in dispute. The Pennsylvania-based Korman says it is operating that west tower as “serviced apartment residences.” Those services include daily housekeeping, laundry service and restaurant room service deliveries. Its residents must sign a detailed, multi-page lease.
Korman is known for primarily for operating luxury, extended-stay hotels under its AKA brand (including an 88-unit one in Beverly Hills), but also operates some “serviced apartment residences” such as its AKA United Nations location in New York City.
However, the city says the building was approved as only residential units, not as a hotel or “temporary lodging.” City staffers found evidence online pointing to AKA operating as a hotel, including the fact the apartments can be reserved online for immediate occupancy.
Representatives for Korman say it is fine if the city wants to change its zoning ordinances to include definitions of the disputed terms such as “long term.” However, they feel it is wrong to try to make such changes via an interpretation like the Planning Commission is being asked to make.
The project, originally known as the Sunset Millennium, was first approved by the City Council in 1999 as a hotel-office-retail complex to be developed in three parcels. In 2005, the project was altered to include a residential component with 190 units in two towers on the middle of the three parcels. Those 190 units were approved to be sold as condominiums.
In 2011, the CIM Group purchased the project after the City Council agreed to reduce the number of required parking by approximately 350 spaces and eliminate a tunnel under La Cienega connecting the parking garages on each side of the street, plus allow the 190 residential units to be rented as apartments.
Along the way, the name of the project was changed to the Sunset-La Cienega project. Construction on the project was completed in late 2016. When the middle parcel was sold to Korman Communities, the name Sunset-La Cienega stopped being used.
After Thursday’s vote to delay, Aaron Green, representing Korman, told WEHOville they were hoping the Commission would make a decision right away, but are fully prepared to make their case in April.
“We’re disappointed that the commission didn’t allow us to proceed and make a decision tonight,” said Green. “We’re really disappointed that staff is trying to amend the zoning code and housing policy by way of an interpretation. We hope to bring this to resolution as quickly as possible and we think there is very little unclear about this.”
Melrose Triangle Project
City attorney Lauren Langer announced during Thursday’s meeting that the court case regarding the massive Melrose Triangle retail-residential-office complex had cleared its final legal hurdle with a California Supreme Court ruling in the city’s favor. All appeals have now been exhausted, Langer said, and the project can proceed.
The project at 9080 Santa Monica Boulevard (at Doheny Drive and Melrose Avenue) was approved by the City Council in October 2014. However, the Los Angeles Conservancy filed a lawsuit, arguing that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was inadequate. The main thrust of the legal challenge questioned whether the city gave appropriate consideration for ways to preserve the historic Streamline Modern building on the site and whether the alternatives considered in the EIR were appropriate.
Langer explained that an appeals court heard the case in September 2017 and ruled in the city’s favor. In making that ruling, the appeals court said the details of the case could be published, meaning that it could be used as precedent for future legal cases involving CEQA (California Environment Quality Act).
However, several groups applied to have it “depublished,” meaning that it would not be used as precedent. Langer said the California Supreme Court considered the matter and ruled on Wednesday that the case could remain published. In considering whether to depublish it, the Supreme Court also declined to review the case, meaning the appeals court ruling stands.
Apartments to Condos
The Planning Commission also unanimously approved petitions regarding three separate residential buildings, originally approved to be rented as apartments, seeking to now be sold as condominiums instead. Since each of the buildings is small, they were originally approved by city staff and never came before the Planning Commission. However, the law requires condominium tract maps to be approved by the Planning Commission, thus the brief hearing the Commission held on Thursday night. The buildings are:
634 N. Huntley Drive (north of Melrose Avenue), a two-story, three-unit building, owned by David and Dustin Pourbaba.
1236 N. Spaulding Ave. (south of Fountain Avenue), a two-story, three-unit building, owned Central California LLC.
1236 N. Fairfax Ave. (south of Fountain Avenue), a four-story, seven-unit building, owned by FMB Development and Ilan Kenig.