The Death of Duff Bennett, Key Opponent to a Palm Ave. Project, Leads Planning Commission to Postpone Hearing on It

923-931 Palm Ave. (Architect Ed Levin)

With a unanimous vote Thursday night, West Hollywood’s Planning Commission delayed a hearing on a controversial senior living project on Palm Avenue for a month due to the sudden death of the project’s chief opponent.

Duff Bennett, who has spearheaded opposition to the project for the past four years, died on Monday night after a sudden illness. Others opposed to the project petitioned for the continuance while they grieve Bennett’s death and regroup for their fight against it.

The Commission noted that if the project applicant were the person who had died, they would have naturally approved a continuance, so it was only fair to offer the same courtesy to the people fighting the project. The new hearing date is set for Nov. 19.

Located at 923-931 Palm Ave., just north of Cynthia Street, the proposed project is intended as a senior congregate-care housing facility “designed to memory-care standards,” as the staff report describes it. The project will incorporate two historic bungalows already on the site.

The project includes a new, four-story, 33,460-square foot, 48-room, L-shaped building at 923 Palm Ave. and extends into the backyards of the two historic properties at 927 and 931 Palm Ave. Project plans call for the bungalow at 927 Palm to be used for administrative offices, while the 931 Palm bungalow would be used for residential housing for a total of 49 units on the property.

Because it involves the two bungalows that were designated historic in 2013, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) was required to weigh in on the appropriateness of the project before it came to the Planning Commission.

In 2017, HPC rejected the project on a 4-1 vote. Federal historic property guidelines allow new structures to be built adjacent to the historic homes, provided that “when visible and in close proximity to historic buildings, the new construction must be subordinate to these [historic] buildings.” The Commission felt a new four-story building would overwhelm the existing one-story houses and therefore would not be subordinate.

In July 2020, a slightly redesigned project returned to HPC for consideration. At that meeting, the HPC vote split 3-3, meaning the Commission took no formal action and the project did not receive a “certificate of appropriateness” for fitting in with the historic structures.The Planning Commission can still approve the project.

Duff Bennett, who lived in the small, non-historically designated house at the rear of the 931 Palm property, organized the opposition among the residents currently living in the 923, 927 and 931 Palm Ave. properties. Similarly, he rallied many community members to fight it. The West Hollywood Preservation Alliance also opposes it.

“Preservation is about ensuring that our urban landscapes reflect more than just profit margins or the whims of developers, private membership clubs or real estate speculators,” Bennett said at the July 2020 HPC meeting. “It’s about working to see that we honor and reflect our city’s history following the same rules and guidelines to benefit the general public as a whole.”

Owned by West Hollywood-based Dylan Investment Properties, the 923-931 Palm Ave. project was designed by West Hollywood-based architect Ed Levin. Since Levin is a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, he had to recuse himself from that Commission’s deliberations regarding the project.

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