Op Ed: Dubious Dealings in the Norma Triangle

By Jesica Ryzenberg

The First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation reach a settlement agreement. The lawsuit against real estate developer and former city planning commissioner David Aghaei will continue.

By continuing to utilize Zoom meetings, City Council avoids facing the righteous indignation of their slighted voters. This enables shenanigans and duplicity with regards to how they spend our money in addressing our affordable housing crisis. We see them, time and again, caving to special interests and the whims of Sacramento — rather than working for the citizens and encouraging fitting developments while maintaining West Hollywood’s unique charm.

There are many affordable housing developers in Southern California. Some are non-profits. One of the non-profits benefiting from subsidized development funds to build affordable housing projects throughout the metro area is the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC). This type development is appalling, as it leads to poor and sometimes unethical business decisions.

Such irresponsibility resulted in a lawsuit filed by the historically-preserved First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills in Norma Triangle against the West Hollywood Community Housing Corp. (WHCHC) and former City Planning Commission Chairman David Aghaei.

The backstory to this lawsuit starts in June of 2019 when David Aghaei, a developer with Oak Road Capital, bought two lots adjacent to and owned by the Church under the pretense of developing a luxury condo building. Verbally, Aghaei is alleged to have promised to reserve two units for the Church, and sell or lease the remainder out. However, the sale contract omitted that promise, and left it to the sole discretion of the new owner. In July of 2019, Aghaei flipped the property to the WHCHC for a $1.1 million profit, and the WHCHC then planned to build a seven story 100 percent affordable housing complex with 100 units on the approximately 17,000 foot lot with slightly more than one parking space for every four units. This project is known as the Wetherly Palms.

The settlement agreement shows the WHCHC’s deceitful business practices. It is a result of unfair real estate dealings that are to be remedied by paying approximately $600,000 to the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills. The City Council should not be approving this endeavor, let alone use city funds/taxpayer dollars for such egregious behavior. This not only is wasteful spending, but it justifies others to engage in similar unscrupulous conduct.

As part of the settlement, the Church will get the originally promised two apartments and will have the option of subleasing the units at market rate for the next 99 years. It leaves one wondering, how is this even 100 percent affordable housing?

While the original lawsuit alleged that the Church should have 18 spaces, the settlement agreement is still insufficient for a building of that size. It designates two parking spaces for the pastor’s residence, one for the additional unit, two fully dedicated parking spaces specifically for the other persons at the Church and 16 timed spaces for 36 hours a week. (Exhibit A, subsection 1.1.2, “Settlement Agreement”).

The WHCHC pretends to offer a “reasonable” parking solution, in a small neighborhood, which will exacerbate traffic, density, and negatively impact the congregants, and ultimately the neighbors. How are the congregants going to park and be able to get residents to move their cars?

Congregants and residents will be engaged in a game of “musical parking spaces” until the agreement is up for renegotiation in two years, and every two years thereafter. Clearly, the WHCHC is taking advantage of the Church again, as this solution is untenable.

The Wetherly Palms project has been dubious from the start, and is tainted with lies and fraud. Failure to be vigilant and defend our neighborhoods from unwise behavior will set a catastrophic precedent for future projects. Based on this settlement agreement and the continuing lawsuit against Aghaei, City Council must steer clear of such questionable proposals and not use taxpayers’ money or the city’s trust to fund this project.

Thanks to Assembly Bill 2345 (AB 2345), which was approved by Gov. Newsom in September 2020, affordable housing developers get automatic concessions from the city and state, including waiving certain studies that for-profit builders and homeowners alike, are required to obtain. The WHCHC should be mandated to conduct an environmental impact report (EIR) for Wetherly Palms, and city officials must demand a proper EIR for such a large scale project.

Due to the proposed magnitude, older nearby buildings, including the 100-year-old Church, must be protected to prevent structural damage. There are serious safety concerns resulting from building on a hill at the terminus of the Hollywood Fault, and City Council must look after the well-being of existing and future residents of West Hollywood.

Whenever these issues are brought up at virtual City Council meetings, the council simply responds by emphasizing that they are complying with AB 2345. This should have been lobbied against by the City Council from the start, since West Hollywood has an A+ rating and/or they should designate specific areas within the city that are more suitable for such large-scale projects. They do not belong in small dense residential neighborhoods.

Ironically, the WHCHC is proposing a massive building in a small neighborhood, the exact opposite of their original mission statement:

“Each building is unique, designed to seamlessly fit within the community. Our buildings are environmentally sensitive and architecturally distinguished in order to reflect and complement their surrounding neighborhoods.”

The above statement is not only misleading, but a flat out lie. The WHCHC did very little community outreach and as reflected on the recent lawsuit and settlement, it’s clear they want to milk a big profit, on top of all the perks and concessions they’d receive from the city and Sacramento.

I understand the immediate need for affordable housing in West Hollywood and support new projects that are transparent from the start and preserve the integrity of our neighborhoods. A gargantuan (84,000 square feet packed onto a 17,000 square foot lot), seven story, 100-unit housing complex in an already dense area, combined with bad faith dealings and a complete lack of integrity, is simply preposterous and fiscally irresponsible. Are these the types of projects we want our elected officials to fund and support?

Publishers Note: After reviewing the pleadings the $600,000 payment was not a settlement but was the balance to be paid upon execution of specified conditions in the original purchase contract. It should also be noted that David Aghaei was a ‘former’ planning commissioner at the time he purchased the land.

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On Cynthia
On Cynthia
1 month ago

Thank you to Ms. Ryzenberg for her detailed reporting on this fiasco. She expresses the truths that those in authority, from the planning commission to city council, have only wanted to brush aside, pretend they don’t exist, and hope everyone will eventually forget, become passive and willingly have the neighborhood destroyed by density housing. It’s hard to believe that the very foundation of this whole deal and the players involved didn’t evolve from nefarious dealings. The fact that the WHCHC has completely ignored its own mission statement and wanting to build its largest structure to date, with limited parking and… Read more »

Susan Rosenbluth
Susan Rosenbluth
2 months ago

Many thanks to Ms. Ryzenberg for her well researched article. With all the shady dealings surrounding this project, one cannot help but wonder why several elected City Council members appear determined to support it. West Hollywood may have the same issue we have nationally; political candidates supported by special interest groups and personally profiting by remaining loyal to them.

Cyn Guy
Cyn Guy
2 months ago

What I find insidious about this Op-Ed is who in the world is Jesica Ryzenberg? What is her position in the community – or more importantly, her connection to this project? Shame on Larry and WeHoVille for failing to disclose what “special interest” Ms Jessica is advancing. Op-Ed’s should be written by people whose positions and affiliations are disclosed by the publication. As for many of the comments – folks, please check your hypocrisy. The Church AGRRED TO SELL THIER LAND. So now they are the victim? You would all be yelling about a luxury development being built on Church… Read more »

Citizen for Change
Citizen for Change
2 months ago
Reply to  Cyn Guy

And what special interest do you represent?

gmeaux
gmeaux
2 months ago

It looks like she is someone who did a lot of careful research over a VERY long period of time.I’m guessing in your world if someone held a gun to your head and you gave them your wallet it would be because you wanted them to have it. But then your obviously an expert on the rich and entitled so you should know that’s actually what even most non profit developers are when they don’t consider the needs of the community. Lots of low income seniors in that area who bought their homes/condos before this giant blow up in prices.… Read more »

Reality
Reality
2 months ago
Reply to  Cyn Guy

Insidious? Why didn’t you do a bit of research. Most of her social media was inaccessible today for some reason but she appears to have a blog and no particular expertise.http://www.ryzenbergon.com/about-jesica-ryzenberg/

Citizen for Change
Citizen for Change
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

Oh, she has a blog? Ok. What’s wrong with that? What expertise does one need to do in order to write about shady dealings? I just saw her LinkedIn, and she used to be a producer at ABC in San Francisco and is a freelance writer. Being a journalist seems to me to be “expertise” when highlighting shall we say interesting business practices.

What expertise do you have? How familiar are you with the situation?

And she also graduated from one of the top journalism schools in the country. It’s all out there.

Reality
Reality
2 months ago

The comment was directed to Cyn Guy who did not appear to do any research. At first scan, the LinkedIn profile was visible and then everything seemed to disappear with the exception of the blog. That being the case I posted the only link available so folks could form their own opinions. I formed my own and currently will keep it to myself.

Reasonably familiar with the situation and oddly enough a graduate of the same journalism school. Also extremely successful investigating unfair business practices and outright fraud. But this is not about me. Hope that answers your questions.

Harambe’s Vengeful Ghost
Harambe’s Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

Thanks for clarifying about your “insidious” remark.

As for the situation at hand, why don’t you write an article or an op-ed? Maybe do some investigating. She seems to be well-researched, not fanning flames but just highlighting something that she thinks is unethical, and advocating that any city monies used to subsidize WHCHC not be earmarked for tainted projects. Isn’t that something we should all want?

An actual West Hollywood citizen
An actual West Hollywood citizen
2 months ago
Reply to  Cyn Guy

To start off; you misspelled AGRRED TO SELL THIER LAND (should be Agreed to sell their land) – followed by accusing WeHoVille for publishing an Op-Ed from someone who lives in the neighborhood and is rightfully disturbed by the DUBIOUS dealings (lawsuits proof this). You are OK with all of this? I’m not. Underhanded and surreptitious dealings should not be allowed to flourish or remained in the dark! PUBLISH AWAY! IT IS STILL A FREE COUNTRY!

gmeaux
gmeaux
2 months ago

Freedom and spelling are still important…….I hope

JJ1
JJ1
2 months ago
Reply to  Cyn Guy

Get your facts straight. The neighborhood is not against affordable housing. It’s against out of scale with the neighborhood development that provides no parking for its residents. Furthermore, affordable housing plunked down in a neighborhood where the supermarkets are the most expensive and all dining and shopping options are equally as expensive, these affordable housing units will have residents in them that can’t afford to eat here or go shopping here. Think about all of that.

resident of area
resident of area
2 months ago
Reply to  JJ1

I agree with this comment. It is well stated.

John Daniel Harrington-Tyrell
John Daniel Harrington-Tyrell
2 months ago

WHCHC is a non-profit? The City funds WHCHC?

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago

Partly.

gmeaux
gmeaux
2 months ago

They contribute city money towards the projects they like. So they kinda do…..

Kings Road
Kings Road
2 months ago

Why in God’s name* did the Church not include the two apartment units in the written sales contract?

Do they not have a single attorney in their congregation? Is this further proof that all lawyers are soulless?

*(pun intended)

Concerned WeHo Resident
Concerned WeHo Resident
2 months ago
Reply to  Kings Road

Looks like it was written in the contract- which is why WHCHC has to give them 2 units… unfortunately what was vague was the verbiage of luxury and specifics about the units— in which the church allegedly trusted ex planning commissioner …. Appears to be a classic bait and switch in final agreements to unaware/unsophisticated elderly church members/pastor. A very sad situation and probably why a lawsuit was put forth that lists all these details.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Kings Road

Not to counter your last comment but just because you are an attorney it does not qualify you to review a complicated legal transaction that is outside your field. As a family law attorney I often see people who are represented by a friend who happens to be an attorney; it seldom works out well.

Left Field
Left Field
2 months ago
Reply to  Kings Road

Standard operating procedures.

The apartments were probably traded for units in another building somewhere.

WHCHC had Yes He Does Ministries operating out of the Sierra Bonita building until the franchise tax board shut it down in 2015.LA Supervisor Sheila Kuehl gave Jim Chud an award for Advance Abilities non profit in 2017.. California EDD still has Advance Abilities operating out of Jim apartment at Sierra Bonita several years after Jim’s death.

AMC1946
AMC1946
2 months ago
Reply to  Left Field

That is literally not what’s happened here. Read the settlement, it’s right here in black and white.

WeHo Neighbor
WeHo Neighbor
2 months ago

This is a bright red flag in city politics. Council members shouldn’t approve a project that has no integrity. A small neighborhood that already does not have enough parking to support the church the elementary school two blocks away and the residents cannot survive a large scale bad faith development. The density issues, safety concerns and well being of this small area is completed ignored by the city. Note to vote them out in the next election! Better yet recall WeHo city council for considering such a project and using city funds for something negatively impacting the residents.

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago
Reply to  WeHo Neighbor

City funds shouldn’t be used for any of these projects. We have an A+ rating from the state. If you want to make housing affordable, focus on jobs. Bring back our economy. Reopen WeHo and diversify our businesses.

Weho Resident
Weho Resident
2 months ago

David was an excellent planning commissioner. I don’t think any of us know exactly what happened here but West Hollywood has too many insiders doing double dealing.

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago
Reply to  Weho Resident

Sounds like some people know exactly what was going on. This op-ed seems to be well-researched and informed.

gmeaux
gmeaux
2 months ago
Reply to  Weho Resident

There is monster paper trail on this. All in public records. If your pal David wanted to be a wheeler dealer, why pick a Historic Church down on its luck?He knew them and knew they were desperate. Im guessing he should have had the sense not to use his city position and contacts to shortchange a religious organization he did not belong to. He should have helped them sell the land to the highest bidder not paid for it under value with his own petty cash then sold it right away to the Housing Corp where he already had an… Read more »

Weho Resident
Weho Resident
2 months ago

Smells fishy but if he was no longer a planning commissioner then there is not a conflict of interest.

Concerned WeHo Resident
Concerned WeHo Resident
2 months ago
Reply to  Weho Resident

The entire project stinks— so does the timing of the purchase, flip and the manner in which everything happened… Complete lack of integrity

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago

It’s hot garbage. What did Aghaei know and when did he know it? Why would the church sell its lot and residences? Did he, as a planning commissioner, do any favors for them? Like redrawing lot lines?

gmeaux
gmeaux
2 months ago

Yes he did when he was on the commission. He took their original request to demo.

JJ1
JJ1
2 months ago

I agree with Concerned WeHo Resident below. The city Council cannot support and/or encourage bad faith dealings. Of course we need more affordable housing but the scale of this project, in this neighborhood, is not appropriate. Will the council listen to the people? They haven’t really so far.

Reality
Reality
2 months ago

David Aghaei never inspired the feeling of integrity during his time on Planning Commission.

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

No kidding?

Reality
Reality
2 months ago

As several others before and since, he occupied “the opportunity chair” otherwise known as a turnstile for involvement in development projects. It is generally a very $$$$$ fruitful move.

Citizen for Change
Citizen for Change
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

Shameful. It’s a service, not a gold mine. It should be treated as such.

Reality
Reality
2 months ago

There is little understanding of ethics in this community and even less practice of it.

Citizen for Change
Citizen for Change
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

WeHo Resident
WeHo Resident
2 months ago
Reply to  Reality

Too funny… integrity and WeHo “Planning Commission” in the same sentence. You should be doing standup in Vegas.

Reality
Reality
2 months ago
Reply to  WeHo Resident

I have no idea why you think that statement was funny. From your comments you appear possibly a colleague or supporter of David Aghaei?

Concerned WeHo Resident
Concerned WeHo Resident
2 months ago

Enough is enough. We cannot allow city council to support and encourage bad faith dealings( esp those done against a historic church). Elected officials are supposed to support residents and protect neighborhood quality of life. Clearly WHCHC is not transparent, shows no consideration for the neighborhood and wants to engage in a development which goes again their mission. Sad and pathetic. Follow the $……

JJ1
JJ1
2 months ago

yes, Yes, YES!!!

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago

What do you mean? We have the most transparent city government ever. I mean, we have money coming out of the yingyang because we spend it wisely. Never mind that on top of these sweetheart deals, we’re going to be asked to shell out $400,000 a year for the extended patio for the Abbey. I mean Out on Robertson.

Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
Harambe's Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago

This is absolute malarkey. Did this former planning commissioner go into the deal knowing he wasn’t going to make good on it? If so, that’s absolutely shameful.

Kings Road
Kings Road
2 months ago

Are you not going to blame the baptists for being idiots and not including it in the actual contract?

Harambe’s Vengeful Ghost
Harambe’s Vengeful Ghost
2 months ago
Reply to  Kings Road

So you’re victim blaming and shaming? Remind me to never come to you with a problem.

Kings Road
Kings Road
2 months ago

Hey harambe! This is me reminding you – do NOT come to me with your problems.

Also if you’re doing a complicated real estate transaction, hire a qualified attorney.

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