Saturday, June 11, 2011

City of West Hollywood Puts Thorn in Fickett’s Side

Vanos Architects, Scale Model of Proposed Development at 1350 N. Hayworth Ave.
Thursday evening 6/9/2011, the West Hollywood Planning Commission Design Review Sub-Committee met with architect, Jay Vanos at Plummer Park to review and discuss the proposed development plans for 1350 N. Hayworth Ave, West Hollywood.  The meeting was to focus on the design of the building proposed for the location as well as the merits it would have to the neighborhood.  It seems the City of West Hollywood in now facing a tough position in handling the developer and the decisions that will be made from this point further.  As the City was at fault in a legal battle against the developer, which delayed their right to develop, the city has had to make many concessions to HOFFMAN STREET, LLC, the developers, due to a damages reward.  This precarious legal matter has placed The Hollywood Riviera, Edward H. Fickett, FAIA, literally and figuratively, next door to the ugly political drama.  As HOFFMAN STREET, LLC has endured a long legal battle with the City, it is doubtful they have any compassion towards anymore concessions regarding their development at this point.  But, it would be an amazing thing if the developers could work with the preservationists and neighbors of the Fickett-designed building and adjust their design plans, so everyone could be happy.
N. Hayworth Ave looking West from Behind the Buildings
After many questions by the Design Committee asking why the developer is able to implement past zoning ordinance and special allowances towards the developer, I had to ask if there was more behind the story than being mentioned at this point.  The City seems to be between a rock and a hard place at the moment.  On one hand, they have designated 1400 N. Hayworth Ave, a Historical Cultural Monument (HCM), which you would think they would want to protect any way they could, and on the other, you have a developer who got reemed by the city with eleventh-hour judgments and ordinances causing years of delay on a project started over five years ago.
1400 N. Hayworth Ave, The Hollywood Riviera, Edward H. Fickett, FAIA
Now, the neighbors of the Fickett are rightfully concerned as they question how much control Planning may have on this development with the repercussions of the lawsuit dangling over their heads?  That sad truth is there should be a way that both parties get what they want from a developers side, preservationists’ side and city’s perspective.  Everyone has the right and freedom to purchase land, develop, live, sell, trade, barter…  The thing is, can you be responsible in doing so and with respect to your neighbors?  There are always alternatives to reach positive results. 
Historic Cultural Monument, The Hollywood Riviera
Impact on a Historic Monument

Concern is for The Hollywood Riviera, an Edward H. Fickett, FAIA designed Historical Cultural Monument (HCM), which sits directly north of the development site, and the impact the new structure has on the Mid-Century Modern historic site, in relation to natural light.  The shade caused by the proposed building would most certainly have a dramatic effect on all of the Fickett south-facing units and will alter the experience as the architect envisioned.  This in turn would have a negative economic impact on the Fickett, as lower home values will be incurred.  Gillig demonstrated his lack of concern for the Fickett and support of the developer by stating, “only the courtyard was mentioned in the[‘Hollywood Riviera’] nomination, so the effect of light on the windows shouldn’t be a concern”.   Little did he know the The Hollywood Riviera was designated for its post-war courtyard design by the notable architect Edward H. Fickett with the character defining elements of the property being the square plan and courtyard; exterior stucco; recessed first story and entry; butterfly roof; windows; sign; fins; plywood; balconies; exterior staircases and second-floor windows. See City Council Resolution 10-4099.

Views of the East and South Perspective
Floor to Ceiling Glass.  A true sign of the Mid-Century.
With respect to historic buildings, CEQA says that a project that may have a significant effect on the environment if it causes a substantial adverse change in the significance of an identified historical resource. Preservationists feel The Hollywood Riviera would be materially impaired.  Materially impaired means that the building would be demolished, or the project would adversely alter those characteristics that make it eligible for designation on the historic register.  Even if a significant impact has been identified, mitigation measure may be adopted to avoid material impairment to the historic resource.  By not scaling back on the project or opening roof lines on the top floors above balconies, everyone could find themselves back in court, as what is being proposed now by the developer will indeed severely impact The Hollywood Riviera.  The city feels as long as there is no shade in the courtyard area of The Hollywood Riviera, then they are safe.  The fact of the matter is if they approve plans as they are now, they would be creating a possible lawsuit by the owners of the Fickett designed building as they will see an economic impact directly from the building as well as the natural light impact.  It will be up to the city to put on their political gloves and try and make everyone involved happy.

The map below identifies the site and historic properties in the area.  The property north of 1350 N. Hayworth Ave is a historically designated property along with two others on the street.

Model of Proposed project to the South of The Hollywood Rivier
Gathered around an intimate table sat Planning Commission Design Review Sub-Committee Members, Sue Buckner, Alan Bernstein and Marc Yerber along with the project’s architect Jay Vanos of Vanos Architects.  On the city’s Planning side, John Keho was absent, but David Gillig and Associate Planner, Laurie Yelton were in attendance.
Buckner, Bernstein, Yelton, Yeber, Gillig (L-R)
Due to many questions by the Design Sub-Committee members regarding building and zoning code concerns, the decision against the city of West Hollywood won by the developers through appeal was mentioned several times.  This particular lawsuit put the city in a very precarious place, as were found that way in a court of law.  In turn for their lack of legal insight at the time, the city, in turn conceded to the developer through favorable zoning measures.

The Thorn in Everyone's Side
Before we can touch the subject of The Hollywood Riviera, we have to tackle the ‘Elephant in the Room’, the ‘Thorn in the Side’, the ‘Egg in the Face’:  The ugly legal battle between HOFFMAN STREET LLC v. CITY OF WEST HOLLYWOOD.  It is not favorable towards the City.  It all began in 2006 when owner, HOFFMAN STREET LLC (Wafik Bichai & George Toro, et al.) applied for a demolition application to the City of West Hollywood, in a case being widely used now in the legal system as example.

179 Cal.App.4th 754f (2009)
HOFFMAN STREET LLC(aka 1350 N Hayworth Ave), et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants
CITY OF WEST HOLLYWOOD et al., Defendants and Respondents
No. B210789.
Court of Appeals of California, Second District, Division Three.
November 23, 2009
Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, Benjamin M. Reznik, Joel D. Deutsch, Paul A. Kroeger and Elizabeth Thompson for Plaintiffs and Appellants
Jenkins & Hogan, Michael Jenkins and Christi Hogin for Defendants and Respondents.

The developer, HOFFMAN STREET LLC, submitted an application to the City of West Hollywood in January 2006 to demolish its existing 16-unit apartment building located at 1350 N. Hayworth Ave. and build a 17-unit condominium complex in an area zoned for multifamily residential uses.  Initially, approval of the application was delayed due to the application being incomplete.  It was then again delayed as the city considered whether the existing property should be designated as a historical resource. Although the city’s Historical Preservation Committee rejected the historical designation in October 2006, the City Council delayed a decision on Hoffman Street's application until June 4, 2007, the very same day it adopted an "urgency" moratorium on all multi-family housing development, citing "... a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare."

After two years held up in the ‘system’, the California Court of Appeal has held in Hoffman Street, LLC et. al. v. City of West Hollywood et. al., the West Hollywood moratorium against multi-family housing development violated the state law that regulates such urgency ordinances by failing to adopt findings specified in the code.

In a published opinion, the Court wrote: “We believe that to satisfy the requirements of [Government Code section 65858 (c)(1)] a written finding by the legislative body must identify both (i) a specific, ‘significant, quantifiable, direct, and unavoidable impact’ upon the public health or safety that would result from continued development approvals, and (ii) objective, ‘written public health or safety standards, policies, or conditions’ on which that impact is based.”

Under the settlement agreement the owner could apply to the City for a development agreement (”DA”).  The DA would vest the owner’s rights to develop project over the next ten years, during which time the housing market may recover, allowing the owner to recoup some of its investment.  In exchange for the development agreement, the property owner would forgo a trial on the damages claim. It is likely that the property owner will pursue his claim for damages against the City in the event that the project is ultimately denied. Disposal of the claim for damages constitutes a tangible benefit to the City in exchange for the allowing development under fixed standards for the next 10 years. If the DA is not approved, the settlement agreement provides that the property owner may pursue its claims.  The settlement agreement does not obligate the City to approve the project.  The settlement agreement also states that the City will diligently and expeditiously process the application, comply with CEQA, and schedule a public hearing before the Planning Commission to consider the development agreement

Hence, city officials seeking to create barriers to the development of multi-family housing through urgency measures that claim “a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare," are going to have a much tougher battle in the future as they will no longer be able to use this measure in an eleventh-hour political maneuver. 

Other Concessions Given to Developer:
Environmental Review
Pursuant to the authority and criteria contained in CEQA, the Planning Division has analyzed the proposal as described above. The proposed project is listed among the classes of projects that have been determined not to have a significant adverse effect on the environment and, therefore, the proposed project is exempt from the provisions of CEQA.

Green Building
The proposed project is not required to comply with the Green Building Ordinance. 

Affordable Housing
Per Section 19.22 of the West Hollywood Municipal Code, projects of ten or
fewer units shall include one affordable unit or pay an in-lieu fee. The developer
has elected to pay the in-lieu fee.  Pursuant to the Development Agreement, the
developer has waived any affordable housing incentives, bonuses and
concessions, and shall receive a credit in the amount of $90,000 to be applied
against the affordable housing in-lieu fees  

The Architect’s “Vision”

Mr. Vanos lead the discussion as he walked the Design Review through the project of his proposed vision for 1350 N. Hayworth Ave.  Stating his design was based on the “consideration” for The Hollywood Riviera as well as the surrounding neighborhood, it didn’t seem to resonate well to the ears of the three Design Review Members nor the general public in attendance, as no one could really identify this concept and draw any correlation between the two projects.  Vanos continued saying his inspiration predominantly was influenced by Richard Neutra, FAIA, a famed Mid-Century Modern architect due to the usage of natural resources for his source materials.  He referred to his building proposal of combining wood, stone and metal, as “materially sensuous”. 

Instead, Commissioner Yeber referred to the design and the usage of materials as “messy” and without a true definitive direction in it’s design.  The irony here is the architect’s intent to provide “irregularities” as part of his design.  It was a consensus amongst the Commissioners that Vanos was on the opposite end of the spectrum.  As Vanos chose to approach the project with “odd relations of elements, in relation to one another” and “irregularity” shown through balcony railings made of glass AND metal. Other “variations” include the stone treatment façade and “non-conformity” throughout the whole project.  The result of the project, for a lack of a better term, is Blocky.  The elegance and flair of the architecture on N. Hayworth is not reflected in the architect’s work.  When an architect takes on a project next to a significant piece of architecture, they had better be prepared for some scrutiny.  You are up against some major players here: Richard Neutra and Edward Fickett. 

Actually, the design could be improved upon if the architect would simplify things and unify the design through better usage of the resources.  It would also be nice if they would only go three stories in order to preserve as much light to the north of the building as possible.  I can dream, can’t I?  I understand and see where the architect is pulling horizontal lines and natural elements to the design and thus calling it an ‘homage to Neutra’, in a sense.  I will let them have that, but when you go beyond the façade, what do  you get?  The interesting thing about the Fickett, “Hollywood Riviera”, is you get an experience from the front, but once you walk through the entrance, you and in a whole other world!

‘Out of the Box’

Not only is the exterior cold in it’s appearance, but within footsteps of entering into the complex, the entrant is met by an over-sized planter faced with stone veneer with a water feature using copper with bronze patina and crushed glass pebbles.  The architect explained the  multipurpose features of the courtyard monolith  Included in his inspired uses for the cube were the tree planter, a water feature and a movie screen  for evening gatherings in the courtyard area.   Design Review Member Yeber suggested better use of the over-sized planter in the common area.  I felt the courtyard area to be dark and dank.

With the architect’s reference’s to the style of architecture from the Mid-Century Modern era, it is surprising he did not truly take in the philosophies of the great Neutra nor Fickett. The fact the 4-story 17-unit building occupies only a one parcel lot, unlike most double parceled developments on Hayworth Ave., makes it feel squeezed in.  The building can’t help feeling out of place due the size and scale compared to the neighbors on the street.  Buckner felt it didn’t share cohesion with the other buildings on the street.  Bernstein also commented on the size and scoop of the proposed building and stated he did not feel comfortable with the height. 
Image of the current natural light between 1400 & 1350 N Hayworth Ave.
Natural Light

As the “Hollywood Riviera” was designed to take advantage of natural light through it’s floor to ceiling panels of windows, the question arises as to how the size of the proposed Hoffman Street LLC project will allow natural light to filter into the units on the south-side of 1400 N. Hayworth Ave.  And, will it change the dynamic of this Historic Monument?  Even from the photos I shot of the model, you can see the effect the four-story building has on the Fickett building.  Shadows are cast over the model from the roof line of 1350.  Why bother with a light and shade study when the model and the light effects were sitting right behind the Committee at the meeting?  If they just took a moment to study the model they may have realized the common sense approach might have given them a quick answer as to the effects on the Fickett.
Vanos again started referring to Neutra as inspiration with the allowance for natural sunlight for his project, which was a mantra of the Modern architect’s of the Mid-Century.  Natural light and shading of light was essential to these Post War architects.  Vanos felt it important to his design to expose as much of the South-West corner of the building to light as possible.  What was ironic about his statement was it came right after he stated his appreciation for and inspiration by the Fickett project, which is now dramatically shaded by his proposed plans.   Buckner raised her concern over the impact of the proposed building on the ‘Hollywood Riviera’, specifically.  She not only was concerned about the Fickett, but the neighborhood in general.

It was amusing to hear the Planning Department’s Gillig “saw no need for a light & shade study”, which happened to be recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission from their meeting held May 28, 2011.  On the contrary, Bernstein felt a concern over the natural light issues and impact on the Fickett building.  He felt without this study, his opinion could not clearly be made on the matter.  Vanos offered to bring a light & shade study to the next full-on Planning Commission meeting next Thursday at West Hollywood Park Auditorium. 
Another glaring question was brought up by Bernstein.  He questioned why the building was allowed a height variance for the four floors?  Bernstein and Buckner were surprised to hear the city had to make certain accommodations to the developer due to the lawsuit the city lost involving this development.  Gillig provided the Members clarity on some of the concessions made due the legal damages, such as building classifications, height variances, unit size variances and a $90,000 tax credit amongst others all ready pointed out.  Does the City have any power or control over what the developer is doing?  I doubt there is much civil conversation between the two parties at this point, but Vanos did his job as being amiable and open, but a little light on the details. 
As questions from the Members continued to the architect, the proposed courtyard tree was noted as a concern.  Would this be the best use of space, as the tree would be planted about 10-12 feet off the ground floor with the planter’s top edge level reaching the beginning of the 2nd floor?  An olive tree would be planted and enjoyed by the 2nd and 3rd floors.  The residents and guests would walk through the entrance and into the courtyard and immediately come upon a large stone-faced cube acting as the tree’s planter and water feature.  The architect also proposed using the cube as a film screen for nighttime gatherings.
Again, the ‘heaviness’ of the design is once again a problem.  Instead of having a feeling of this building lifting from the earth, the design leaves one feeling confused, confined and heavy.  Yeber felt the building “lacked clarity” due to the muddled stonework on the West-facing 2nd floor façade.
As the architect explained his creative “intention was to be different and the design had assertiveness” demonstrated through his mixture of resource materials used.  His interpretation is one way of looking at things, but I keep taking it back to his so-called inspiration from Neutra?  Buckner recognized the architect’s vision for units designed with varying square footage as a positive aspect of the design.

Vanos continued thought with the importance vegetation was to the design of the building.  Unfortunately, it would have been better to have had the landscape architect there to be more specific, as Vanos seemed vague once again, even after expressing the importance of the issue.  Sheesh!  In the Modernist world, the indoors were met with the outdoors.  We are now in a period of design where outdoor features are prevalent again.  This is why questions about the vegetation and landscape are being asked.  Just take a look to the north as an example.  The outdoor space is equally as inviting as the interiors.  Again, the impression of the project is that of a large scale packed into a small area along with the lack of incongruity throughout. 
More of this story will unfold as the developer and city try to come to a sound decision as they approach approvals on the development.  The city is now placed in a very precarious position as it has a rightful angry developer on one hand and a Cultural Historic Monument to protect on the other.  How do they do right after so much wrong?  Gillig seemed to dismiss all public comment at the end of the meeting while he scrolled through his Blackberry and looking up on occasion.  This was a very sad commentary over the situation. 
From the meeting on 5/23/11, the overall consensus of the Historic Preservation Commission is that there will be significant impacts to the adjacent historically designated Hollywood Riviera building. The Commission believes that the design of the proposed building is not compatible with the neighborhood because of its modern design, height, bulk, and scale of the building. They agreed with staff’s suggestion of “un-roofing” the northern balconies on the 4th floor and suggested that the applicant provide a shade study. HPC Levine attended the meeting, but when asked to comment.  He did not as he felt “uncomfortable with speaking in this context.”  I’m not quite sure anyone understood why he could not participate in the discussion when asked a few questions by the Design Members in relation to this particular subject discussed at the last HPC meeting?

We will all find out more on this issue as the next Planning Commission meeting is to take place Thursday, June 16 at 6:30pm in the West Hollywood Park Auditorium, 647 N. San Vicente Boulevard West Hollywood, California 90069.  All are welcome to attend and speak to the Commissioners about their concerns to protect The Hollywood Riviera as the agenda this evening will address the 1350 N. Hayworth Ave. development, Item 6 d. of the Agenda.  This is the time for anyone concerned about 1350 N Hayworth Avenue and it’s northern neighbor 1400 N. Hayworth Ave. to approach the microphone and speak their well-thought-out comments to the Planning Commission.


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