Members of West Hollywood’s Planning Commission on Thursday night expressed concerns about the traffic that likely will be generated by the new building proposed for the site of the French Market on Santa Monica Boulevard and about its height.
Their comments last night were focused on the findings of the draft environmental impact report (EIR) about the project.
The 83,000 square-foot project at 7985 Santa Monica Blvd. at Laurel Avenue, will preserve the French Market building, while the area that was the French Market’s parking lot will see a new building erected for retail and restaurant space. A four-story, 60-foot-tall office building will be built at the rear of the property.
The project will have 269 parking spaces in a three-level underground garage, with the parking entrance and exit on Laurel Avenue. The draft EIR found that the major impact the project will have on the surrounding area would come from the driveway’s design. Other issues such as noise and traffic during construction could be more easily dealt with.
The Commissioners agreed the driveway will be the biggest problem.
“The ingress and egress [entrance and exit] all on a residential street . . . this will put a tremendous burden on the residents of Laurel the way it is currently configured,” said Commissioner John Altschul, who noted the city has long had a policy discouraging commercial parking entrances and exits on residential streets.
Commissioners Rogerio Carvalheiro and Stacey Jones, both of whom live on Laurel near Sunset Boulevard, shared that concern. They noted that Laurel, with traffic lights at Sunset, Fountain Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, sees a large amount of traffic since it is often used a cut-through street. They suggested the city study the traffic patterns on Laurel. However, Bob Cheung, the city’s senior transportation planner, said that traffic on Laurel has already been studied and no significant impact was noted.
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner suggested the parking entrance and exit should be on Santa Monica Boulevard instead. Commissioner Sue Buckner agreed that a Santa Monica Boulevard entrance and exit might be better, but noted that it would add traffic problems to that already busy corridor.
Although zoning for the area only allows a maximum height of 45 feet, Faring, the project’s developer, is requesting to build the four floors of office space to 60 feet. Faring intends to rent it as “creative office space,” where 15 feet is the standard height for ceilings.
Carvalheiro suggested that the project is too tall at 60 feet, and if lowered to 45 feet, it would not only meet the zoning code, it would also create less traffic.
Faring is requesting several variances to the city’s zoning code and is seeking approval of a “specific plan” to accommodate those deviations from zoning for the site. Altschul noted that projects this small typically do not use specific plans; only larger projects get specific plans (such as the Pacific Design Center, the 8899 Beverly Boulevard office-residential project, or Faring’s recently approved Robertson Lane hotel-retail project).
Hoopingarner echoed his concern, saying it “smacks of spot zoning.”
“Why do we need a specific plan for a single piece of property?” Hoopingarner said. “A specific plan doesn’t seem appropriate for this.”
Hoopingarner said she also was disturbed that the draft EIR only addressed the preservation of the exterior of the French Market building and said nothing about the interior. A representative of Rincon Consulting, which conducted the EIR, said it does not typically study interiors of commercial buildings, only the “character-defining features” of the exteriors.
However, Hoopingarner questioned that approach, noting, for example, that the ornate interiors of the grand movie palaces are the main character-defining feature of those buildings. She said the New Orleans-style interior of the French Market was as much a character-defining feature as the exterior.
The project’s interior will likely be a source of discussion when the French Market’s draft EIR goes before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting for feedback. That meeting is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. in Room 5 and 6 of the Community Center in Plummer Park.
The period during which the public can offer comments on the French Market draft EIR is open until Nov. 5. Any comments or questions about the project from the pubic, either in person or via email, will be answered in the final EIR.
The full draft EIR can be viewed online.
Commercial Projects Under 30,000 Square Feet
On a 5-1 vote, the Commission also approved a plan to streamline approval of commercial projects under 30,000 square feet.
Currently, the director of the Planning and Development Services Department (formerly known as the Community Development Department) can approve commercial projects smaller than 10,000 square-feet. Anything larger than 10,000 square-feet requires Planning Commission approval. The one exception to that rule is Sunset Boulevard where the director can approve projects up to 30,000 square-feet.
This new plan brings that Sunset Boulevard 30,000 square-foot threshold to the entire city, allowing for director approval of such projects. However, if the developer requests a variance in the zoning law or a change of the conditional use permit (CUP) for the property, the full Planning Commission would have to approve it. Anything larger than 30,000 square-feet would still require Planning Commission approval.
The Commission liked the plan, noting it might encourage more of these small and medium-sized projects to be build. Since 2014, just three developments between 10,000 square-feet and 30,000 square-feet have been proposed.
Commissioner John Altschul cast the only vote against the plan, worried that it was removing the opportunity for the public to weigh in on the projects.
“We’re taking the right of a public hearing away for projects between 10,000 and 30,000 square feet,” Altschul said.
City staffers noted that members of the public can still voice their opinions at neighborhood meetings that are still required for these smaller projects.
The plan now goes to the City Council for final approval.
Goodbye to David Aghaei
Commissioner David Aghaei did not attend Thursday’s meeting as he has moved out of West Hollywood and is no longer a member of the Planning Commission. His final meeting was on Oct. 4, although he did not tell anyone it was going to be his last time.
An appointee of Councilmember John Heilman, Aghaei served on the Commission for seven years, beginning in July 2011.
Commissioner Stacey Jones praised Aghaei, saying he brought a certain expertise to the Commission and set a standard for calm discourse.
“He had background in development and the law. He was incredible at building consensus and he was really good at running meetings,” said Jones. “I just want to thank him for his service and acknowledge his contributions publicly.”
Commissioner John Altschul said Aghaei “made a tremendous contribution to everything we did,” while Commissioner Sue Buckner said he made important comments during their discussions.
The entire Commission hoped Aghaei would return for a future meeting so they can officially say goodbye.
Heilman has appointed John Erickson to replace him. Erickson, a former City Hall employee who now works as the director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles and is the president of the National Organization for Women’s Hollywood chapter, will officially join the Commission at its Nov. 1 meeting.