Op-Ed: Palms Project Appeal on Shaky Ground

A rendering of the Palms senior living facility approved by the Planning Commission.

By Larry Block

CADENCE LIVING’S FIRST ENTRY to build senior living facilities in West Hollywood has been met with opposition from residents who are appealing the decision to the City Council on Monday, April 19 as item 3B.

The Ellis Act would force six existing residents of market rate units to be relocated under the city requirements for re-location compensation. There will be 49 new assisted living units in its place.

The Planning Commission approved the assisted-living project at 923-931 Palm Avenue on a 5-1 vote. In a situation like this, the City Council can’t just step in as “Planning Commission 2.0,” throw out the original Commission vote, and start over. The City Council can only reverse a decision of the Planning Commission if it finds evidence that the Commission made a legal error in approving the project, or if they find that the evidence presented to the Commission wasn’t adequate to support that approval, or if the project didn’t follow a proper CEQA process.

The city has a zoning ordinance that sets out the legal rules and standards for a development project. The zoning ordinance also sets out the processes for reviewing a project, as well as the legal rules for appealing that review. The staff report for this appeal, which has been reviewed by the city attorney, says this appeal doesn’t meet the legal standard for an appeal. The staff report says there’s no evidence of a technical error or a legal error by the Planning Commission. The commission followed the rules and approved the project based on the city’s zoning standards and based on expert evidence from the city’s own environmental and historical consultants.

The City Council can’t just play politics and ignore the rules of their own zoning ordinance. The council has the power to change the zoning ordinance, but it can’t ignore the ordinance it has now, and it can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. So if the council were to decide to reverse the commission, it would be doing so arbitrarily, without a sound legal basis. That’s when courts step in. 

In other words, if the City Council tries to throw out the project approval, against its own rules and against the advice of their own staff and city attorney, the city will get sued and the city will lose. The courts would issue an order directing the city to accept the Planning Commission approval.

The city needs senior housing, and it particularly needs senior assisted living. And that’s what the 923-931 Palm project is. It’s not a medical facility or a skilled nursing facility where patients receive medical care. It’s simply a residential building with small studio units, where seniors who need some limited help in taking care of themselves can find that help.

Seniors were instrumental in the founding of West Hollywood. But the city hasn’t done nearly enough to support the senior community. The city offers heartfelt words about “aging in place” and “aging in community,” but there hasn’t been an assisted-living building built here since long before the city was founded. When Jeanne Dobrin could no longer take care of herself in her own apartment, she had to leave West Hollywood to find the help she needed.

There’s no justification for the City Council to overturn a properly-made decision of the Planning Commission. The proposed assisted-living project at 923-931 Palm was approved 5-1 by the commission after a thorough review. The council should deny the appeal and let this needed senior building be built.

Growing older and losing one’s abilities to live alone is devastating. The needs of our senior population are paramount and should not be overlooked.

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