By Tim Posada, 8/26/2010
A group of West Hollywood residents and others who live just over the border in Los Angeles, protested the development plans of an eight-story building at 8497 and 8499 Sunset Blvd. at a City of West Hollywood planning commission hearing on Thursday, August 19. Protests focused on a projection from a traffic study that stated traffic would increase by more than 900 cars daily in front of the project, located at the corner of La Cienega Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Miller Drive.
“I was not surprised there was opposition, I was surprised it was so vehement at this stage,” said Ann Gray, who represents Karma Development, LLC, the project developer. “It felt like it came late. I understand where they’re coming from though.”
The project, unanimously approved by the planning commission, calls for the demolition of an existing 31-unit housing complex, replacing it with a mixed-used project consisting of 34 residential units – 24 market price condos and 10 affordable housing units – and 9,200 square feet of business space for retail and a restaurant. Hodgetts + Fung is the design and architecture firm behind the project. Karma Development hopes to break ground in the fall of 2011.
According to Francisco Contreras, senior planner for the City of West Hollywood, the city encourages mixed-use projects. Projects like the one at 8497 and 8499 Sunset Blvd. serve as examples of what the city wants to see more of, Contreras said, business and residential combined in commercial zones and not in residential areas.
“When you create mixed-use buildings, the impact to both commercial streets and the building itself – like utilities and upkeep – is decreased,” Contreras said. “They create a more walkable living city…Mixed-use buildings received much pre-World War Two popularity and have been in vogue in the States for some time. It’s the idea that we should stop being dependent on cars and create a healthy alternative to living.”
Contreras added that the project may be eight stories, but does not exceed 40 feet, more than 10 feet below the maximum allowed by the city at that location. Only the first three levels are visible from the street, because of the staircase design of the building.
Gray said the new development would correct “scarring” on a hillside behind the property caused by the previous development.
“When the existing building was built, they hacked away at the hillside,” Gray said. “The concept is to rebuild the hill with parking and put terrace housing on top of that. It’s kind of a hill town concept.”
According to John Ferraro, who has lived in Miller Place above the hillside behind the proposed project for 16 years, concerned residents were shocked to discover how far along the project was, so he went to the public hearing to protest, joined by a group of dissatisfied community members. He believes his objections went unheard.
“Why are we [at the hearing] if they’re just going to approve the project anyways?” Ferraro said. “It’s a frustrating process where we don’t feel like we have a voice. None of us knew how far along this was.”
In May 2008, a neighborhood meeting was held between the developer and more than 20 people from the community regarding the project, where two main concerns were discussed: an increase of vehicles turning onto Miller Drive, an already narrow road that goes up the hillside, and obstructed views of the houses above the project. Ferraro echoed the concerns, adding that the project goes too far up the hillside, about 85 feet, and will increase traffic at one of the worst intersections in the area.
“Just last week, one of my neighbors looked like she was going to have a nervous breakdown thinking about the project,” Ferraro said. “We’d like something new there, if it were reasonable — seventy percent of the size it is now. We’re fine with a residential complex, we just don’t want businesses that will increase traffic.”
Ferraro said more than 30 people in his neighborhood disapprove of the project. He and additional community members are preparing an appeal they plan to file by Monday with the City of West Hollywood. Issues of concern were addressed at the public hearing last week as well, but Ferraro does not feel the city’s corrective measures are strong enough, especially in regards to increased traffic and illegal U-turns occurring on Miller Drive.
“They said they would put up more ‘no U-turn’ signs, but drivers make U-turns there regardless of signs now, even though they’re still not supposed to,” Ferraro said. “Every day someone does, and who wouldn’t? It’s not about more U-turn signs. When I’m coming up Miller Drive, I’m always about to hit a taxi driver. How can anyone justify building a major entrance where a problem already exists?”
According to a traffic study conducted by KOA Corporation, West Hollywood’s traffic consulting group, the Sunset Boulevard project would generate an additional 906 car trips per day at the intersection, but the city report for the project provides a mitigation measure that would help decrease northbound traffic on La Cienega Avenue by restriping the two right lanes to allow duel right turn capability.
“While Miller Drive will not directly be affected by the restriping, all approaches will benefit from it because the intersection will operate better when northbound traffic is lightened,” said Ron Hirsch, principal of Hirsch/Green Transportation Consulting, Inc., the traffic representative for Karma Development.
Ferraro does not see how restriping for northbound traffic will decrease congestion for the entire intersection. Gray, however, believes too much blame is being placed on a small project amidst an already problematic traffic situation.
“It’s a very complex intersection and I think we’ve come up with an elegant solution,” Gray said. “When you live on a skinny street, it’s a lot to expect a tiny development to mitigate a substandard hillside road that’s not a part of that development.”
The property is not located solely in West Hollywood but overlaps the City of Los Angeles, thus the question of jurisdiction remains unanswered. The project is currently going through an appeals phase, where anyone can protest the development plans, after which Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, 5th District, said, depending on the type of appeals, he wants the City of Los Angeles to push for jurisdiction over it because the changes directly affect community members in the area.
As of now, no businesses have been chosen to occupy the two spaces at the project and meetings with the City of Los Angeles have not been set. Karma Development, LLC is run by a private owner, Frank Damavandi.