With its unusual angles and stripes of white concrete and smoked glass, the Wilshire Bundy Plaza makes a stark contrast to the green Santa Monica Mountains that lie to the north. The 14-story office building has become a distinct part of the Brentwood skyline since it was completed last spring.
But Susana Nierlich said she cringes at the thought of the building, which towers over her home four blocks away.
The Plaza was built on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, at the corner of Bundy Drive, that was supposed to be limited to buildings of three stories and less. Nierlich was one of many Brentwood residents who worked exhaustively on the Brentwood-Pacific Palisades District Plan, partly to keep high-rise offices such as the Plaza out of the neighborhood. When the Los Angeles City Council approved the plan in 1977, it included a three-story limit on portions of Wilshire.
But three years later Murdock Development Co. of Westwood secured a permit to build the Plaza at nearly five times that height, because the city failed to rezone the property to coincide with the plan.
"I have a terrible sense of loss every time I look at it," Nierlich said. "It is like grieving someone's death. It has totally changed the backdrop to our community."
The story of the Plaza is not an unusual one on the Westside or throughout the rest of Los Angeles, where zoning on one-quarter of the 800,000 parcels fails to conform with the more recent and more restrictive community plans. The result has been the construction of scores of office buildings, apartment complexes and other projects that are many times larger than the recommended size.
By their own admission, city officials have made little progress in complying with a state law that said the city had to redraw zoning maps to agree with the community plans. The deadline for completing the task passed 2 1/2 years ago.
A coalition of 42 homeowner associations from the Westside and San Fernando Valley filed suit last month to stop the city from issuing building permits until the new maps have been drawn. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled last Monday that the city must bring the zoning into line within 120 days.
The City Council is expected to decide Wednesday how it plans to resolve the problem.
Community plans were drawn in the 1970s for 35 sections of the city. They are based on a theoretical city population of 4 million and were completed after long hours of hearings involving city planners, developers and neighborhood groups.
But on 200,000 parcels, zoning limits have not been changed to agree with the plans. The zoning on those parcels remains at the level recommended in 1946, when city planners anticipated a population of 10 million.
Nierlich, a former member of the Brentwood Community Federation, took part in the hearings that resulted in the 1977 Brentwood-Pacific Palisades District Plan. She realized, however, that the community needed zoning changes to put teeth into the plan.
"We really pressed to have the plan implemented (with zoning)," Nierlich said. "But the plan has to be interpreted and talked about and further decisions have to be made."
While city officials talked, Murdock Development secured a building permit for the Wilshire Bundy Plaza. A building moratorium for the area was proposed by City Councilman Marvin Braude but the developer was able to get its permit under the old zoning, according to Ron Douglas, a spokesman for Murdock.
Not far from the Plaza are other examples of what happens when zoning does not conform to community plans.
The 26-story World Savings building at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards would have been limited to less than half its density if the Brentwood-Pacific Palisades plan had been enforced with proper zoning. The community plan called for a floor-to-area ratio on the lot of 6-1, but the zoning allowed the building to be constructed at a ratio of 13-1, which is equivalent to most of the major buildings downtown.
On Olympic Boulevard near the intersection of Bundy in West Los Angeles, Westside Associates is building the Westside Towers, two adjoining 12-story brick offices. The towers' density is 67% greater than recommended in the West Los Angeles District Plan, but they are in agreement with zoning. They are scheduled for completion in June.
Similar discrepancies have also allowed apartments and condominiums in areas such as Kings Road near West Hollywood that were designated in plans for single-family homes, according to city planner Don Taylor.
"The community would scream," Taylor said, "because they said they thought they were protected by the community plan. But we weren't as quick as we could have been in rolling back the zoning."
Homeowners have been dismayed by the ease with which developers are able to go against the plans.
If the zoning allows it, builders can get a permit for an office high-rise as easily as a homeowner who wants to remodel his kitchen, Taylor said. Public hearings need not be held.