Date: October 19, 2022
To: City of West Hollywood Planning Commission & Staff
From: Lynn M. Hoopingarner, CMC
Re: 8500 Santa Monica Blvd. Hearing Item 10.B. October 20, 2022
This proposed 80’ tall (click for link) seven-story (plans show “six” stories plus a seventh story “mezzanine”) project that incorporates unconnected parcels of land, a tall wall, 30 condominiums (including 5 affordable), 3,627S SF of commercial space and 31 parking spaces for the entire project.
The applicant is asking for two very significant precedent setting concessions/waivers in order to build these incomplete plans which will require to make multiple post-facto decisions on Planning Commission’s behalf if approved as presented. In fact, this proposal is for an additional 60-65% in height and square footage in exchange for a 16% addition of affordable housing.
I served as a Planning Commissioner for five years and not once did we ever see a project submitted that involved parcels of land that were not connected or adjoining in any way. In fact, I can’t find anyone who has. I have done my best to make this memo as concise as possible but there is a lot going on in this project that needs to be addressed.
Not satisfied with the 55’ building that city and state law would allow to be built on this property, the applicant has thrown in a 10’ unconnected strip of land and is asking to use the two parcels of 2,158 SF (a proposed dog park for the condo owners) to increase the size of the actual building to be constructed on the main corner lot in parcel 1. You will notice from the image below that the Tail of the Pup sits squarely between the proposed building and the non-contiguous proposed dog park parcels.
The staff report on p. 9 & 10 states that: “Although the 9,191 square-foot parcel at 8500 Santa Monica Boulevard does not share a common border with the two adjacent 2,158 square-foot nonconforming parcels, they are considered a “site,” which is defined by the Zoning Ordinance as “a parcel or adjoining parcels that have been legally tied under single ownership or single control, considered a unit for the purposes of development or other use.” [emphasis mine]
Staff goes on to state that: “The Zoning Ordinance does not define the term “adjoining,” but it is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary to mean “near, next to, or touching,” and therefore can encompass non-bordering parcels as long as they are near each other.” [emphasis mine]
If you go to that Cambridge website it actually expands and states “with nothing in between, or touching.” No other dictionaries that I could find use the word “near” in any of their definitions. Let’s go straight to the etymology of the word that includes the rather conspicuous component “join”: adjoin (v.) as “be contiguous with, be adjacent to,” from Old French ajoin- stem of ajoindre “join together, unite,” from Latin adiungere “fasten on, harness, join to,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + iungere “to bind together”
Staff also uses “adjacent parcels” throughout the staff report but once again a stroll through the dictionary takes us back to that pesky word “adjoining”. ad·ja·cent (adj.) next to or adjoining something else. “adjacent rooms”
Applicant is now asking Commissioners to make the finding that a parcel that is “near” another parcel can be considered “adjoining” for purposes of a project definition. My questions: “How far away can a parcel be to be “near”? One parcel away, on the same block, in the same neighborhood, somewhere in WeHo?”
I can appreciate the goal of trying to make that 10’ parcel more green and useful but not using it to leverage up SF to cram an untenable project into a completely separate parcel.
When this project first came to Design Review I specifically asked staff to make sure that there was an opinion from legal in the staff report on this subject. There is none.
Staff goes on to state that: “Furthermore, the parcels are considered “contiguous” under Government Code § 66424 of the Subdivision Map Act, which applies to the proposed condominium map for this project. In other words, state law allows condominium projects to include parcels that do not touch or share a border although these parcels are located on the same block, are separated by only one lot, and are connected by the sidewalk.” [emphasis mine]
So another thorough a stroll through dictionary: con·tig·u·ous (adj.) sharing a common border; touching. “the 48 contiguous states”
I looked up the state law. Government Code § 66424 “Subdivision” means the division, by any subdivider, of any unit or units of improved or unimproved land, or any portion thereof, shown on the latest equalized county assessment roll as a unit or as contiguous units, for the purpose of sale, lease, or financing, whether immediate or future. Property shall be considered as contiguous units, even if it is separated by roads, streets, utility easement, or railroad rights-of-way.
This is to be expected when looking at a sub – division. NOTE it does not mention anything about being “on the same block”, or “separated by only one lot”, or about a sidewalk connection—by which every lot in this city is connected.
The question that is not answered throughout all of this—can the applicant merge these parcels under California Law? If not, how can this project be approved? In the absence of a clear legal determination of this matter I not see how a finding can be made to approve this project.
Commissioners will have to make a very large AND UNPRECEDENTED stretch to make these findings which are the underpinnings of all the other components of this project which quickly become unraveled in the absence of the additional 2,000 SF dog park.
Project Size / FAR
Since this is a mixed-use project the “normal” unit count for housing projects does not apply. For the public who may not be aware, commercial projects use something called Floor Area Ratio (FAR) which means that for every square foot (SF) of the parcel they are allowed a multiplier of FAR to calculate how many square feet they can build. Example: a parcel of 10,000 SF with an allowed FAR of 2.0 would be allowed to build a 20,000 SF project.
By adding in the dog park to this project SF applicant is asking to build an almost 25% bigger project on the primary parcel. And since that doesn’t even seem to be enough, they have actually submitted a project that is another 25% bigger beyond that. Instead of 55’ it is 80’. Instead of 26,884 SF it is 40,235 SF. It is actually as tall as the oversized project proposed across the street at 8555 SMB.
I hope a picture is worth a few words.
What the applicant is in effect saying is we want to use a piece of property that is not contiguous with the main parcel to increase the SF of the project even though we won’t be building on those parcels in order to increase all of the bonuses but the project won’t fit on the property where we will be building since 20% of the property is a non-adjoining dog park so give us an additional 24’ of height so we can build what should have been built on the dog park all in the one original parcel.
Excluding “non-habitable” FAR
Buckle in. This is going to be a wild circular ride. Applicant added over 6,000 SF by adding the dog park SF into the proposed project (column 2). But then they added another 7,000 SF in the actual design (column 3). This does not comply with the maximum FAR allowed so now they are asking for a Concession to exclude 7,000 SF of “non-habitable” space from the calculations so that they will be back in compliance (column 4). Almost 6,000 SF of this is HALLWAYS on the condo floors (see A.050)!
This is a terrible precedent. It has never been done before and to approve this would be to throw open the doors to every developer to simply exclude large swaths of buildings from the FAR calculations. Imagine a building with a “non-habitable” ballroom, conference center, gym etc. and then the developer asking for it to be excluded from the city’s FAR calculations because of this precedent.
Related to the excess FAR is the excess height of this project. A “normal” affordable housing concession for additional height would be the standard 10’/one story. Between concessions and waivers this applicant is asking for an additional 28’ 2” in height and this does not include the additional 6’ 10” needed due to incorrect height calculations. Applicant is using building codes to calculate heights instead of city ordinances. The project’s actual height is 80’ (using low point), not the 73’2” (using ground level) the staff report indicates so they will have to ask for an additional waiver of 6’10” for total height concessions and waivers of 34 feet. That is an additional 60% in height in exchange for 5 (17%) in affordable units.
Seven Stories / 3-bedooms
While the applicant asserts that this is a “six-story” building it is in fact seven-stories (see A.050)—they are calling the seventh story a “mezzanine” which is really an open floor plan room that can easily be converted into a third bedroom. This is again why the height calculations don’t add up. If you look at the elevations (e.g. A.530 West) you will see Ground, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and then another story called “mezzanine level” before you get to the roof at 80’. Just because it has an open area that looks into the living room on the floor below doesn’t mean it isn’t an additional story in height.
The applicant does not include the normal unit size chart in the project specifications pages at the beginning of the plans. Normally you would see “Unit 206 – xxx SF.” Instead, on A.050 they have included a chart that labels “units” by bedroom size. This starts with a ground floor “one-bedroom” that has no bedroom. It has a staircase to the bedroom that is again listed on the 2nd floor as a “one-bedroom” except we don’t know which one since there is no unit number to connect them. In short, I can find no way to see the individual unit sizes nor any place that actually calculates the average size asserted in the staff report. It is too late at night for me to figure out the consequences of turning that third room to a bedroom in terms of related requirements. I will leave that up to PC & staff.
This site currently contains a 20’ x 60’ billboard that the applicant is asking to effectively replace with a 15’ x 56” “art wall”, which looks like a tall wall from the street and covers the entire north-east corner of the building. On p. 10 staff states that this “will contain the project’s required public art installation approved by the Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission.” To my knowledge no such project has been presented or approved by staff or the ACA Commission. In fact, at the neighborhood zoom meeting the applicant’s representative made a point of saying that it wasn’t a far stretch to include this corner as a visual connection to the billboards at the corner of La Cienega and Sunset and that city staff was discussing changes to the ban on SMB billboards so future changes were a possibility. Once again PC is looking at including a major art project as part of the design without any input from ACA. You may recall from my memo about 8555 Santa Monica, the opposite occurred. No provision was made for what will be a large art project and no discussions had with ACA. Here it is the opposite and the “art project” is in no way a component of the building or part of the design or an enhancement to the design. It is a tall wall. I ask, if this really isn’t a billboard in waiting why would a developer give up all those high value view windows to the hills in these expensive condos? Recommendation: 1. Modify the resolutions to include a provision that IF the “art wall” ever is changed to any other use it must come back to PC for approval. 2. Resolution 10.1 should be modified to require that any changes to the design and the addition of new windows would require resubmission to PC.
There is no landscape plan. The city’s Development Permit application form requires submission of landscape plans prepared by a licensed landscape architect as part of the initial project submittal. How is it possible for this project to be submitted to PC without plans? Commission is being asked to write a blank check and turn over their review authority to staff. How can PC make the necessary Findings if the key components to the plans are missing? PC is the Review Authority being asked to delegate their review authority to staff and remove all public transparency to this design component.
The building as designed does not meet ground permeability requirements. Almost all of these have been pushed to the dog park.
Common Area Open Space
Not going to belabor this but even though 7,000 SF has been “removed” from the ground floor FAR it hasn’t magically converted any portion into the required ground floor open space so yet another waiver is requested to consider the dog park the required common open space. With all due deference to our canine companions, nothing says calming open space where you can go read a book like a 10’ wide dog run full of poo and barking dogs.
Yes, state law allows a reduction in residential parking HOWEVER is it a good business decision to try and sell condos for 7 figures without any parking for 10 units and NO guest parking in a neighborhood with no street parking? Yet another project with residential parking spaces (two) squeezed into the unsecured commercial parking area. Will these spaces be assigned to the affordable units? Affordable housing parking? Per resolution 3.3 the three one-bedroom units will each get one-half parking space. Soooo one unit gets a space and the other two none, unless someone drives half a car—for which there will be no parking space because that half has been given to the luxury condos. Once again staff and applicant are using code and ordinances for calculations without any clear sight to the practical implications of implementation
The elevator to the commercial space has no lobby so any subdivisions to the commercial space will have to figure out how to have access to the elevator. Furthermore, there is no public access to the commercial elevator so if someone goes to dinner at a restaurant here and leaves their car to walk down the street, they won’t be able to get to their car if the restaurant is closed upon return. Overall, poor design. Project can’t be denied on this basis but not a great business decision.
There is a large stairwell right in middle of SMB façade, the La Cienega façade is solid walls, window walls and driveways. There is virtually no street activation on this project and an important intersection in our city.
The rear wall on south side is ON the lot line. It is very unclear as to the constructability of this project if the neighboring project to the south is in place and post facto how they will maintain the windows, stucco etc. without any access.
Planning Commission is the Review Authority on development projects in our city. Not staff. Not the applicant. Commission’s role is to interpret the code and make the findings that the proposed project complies with all relevant codes and laws, etc. Something is very off when a project’s calculations result in an additional 60-65% in height and square footage in exchange for a 16% addition of affordable housing.
1. Adjoining parcels. I do not see how it is possible to make a finding that fully 25% of the parcels included in this “project” are “adjoining” or “contiguous.” They simply are not by any definition. Either in city or state code. Therefore, most of the related project elements and calculations are incorrect and cannot be approved.
2. New Precedents. a. In addition to the above point, approving a project with non-contiguous / non-adjoining parcels would set a terrible precedent. Again, how far away is “near”. I can easily see developer who own multiple properties stretching this all the way to the borders.
b. The exclusion of “non-habitable FAR” from the FAR calculations is another unheard-of precedent that could easily result in any number of even more egregious “exclusion requests” in the future.
3. Signing a Blank Check. Applicant is asking for the Commission to approve a project with multiple unresolved design issues, not the least of which is the landscaping, window revisions, materials, perimeter walls, LID design, etc. This is effectively saying “We know you are the review authority but don’t worry your pretty little head about these pesky design issues, staff will take care of it later.” Later meaning without any public transparency or input. Unfortunately, this is not unprecedented but the scope of the exclusions here is.
With that, I’m out. Thank you for your thoughtful review of this important project in the heart of our “village.”