Neighborhood opponents of a proposed 45-unit apartment building on Morton Avenue in the Echo Park district took their battle to court this week in an effort to scale down the project sharply.
Superior Court Judge John Cole has set a hearing for May 24 on the neighborhood group's request that the city revoke the project's building permit. The judge, however, refused to issue a temporary restraining order against construction, although he indicated the builder would proceed at his own risk.
The court action Wendesday came a day after the Los Angeles City Board of Zoning Appeals, in a 2-1 vote, agreed that the city erred in issuing a building permit for the project, which opponents say violates the density allowed under the Community Plan for the Silver Lake-Echo Park area. However, three votes were needed to revoke the project's building permit, and two board members were absent. And, with the 75-day appeals period now over, the developer's case was, in effect, upheld.
Testimony of Residents
About 25 residents attended the zoning hearing Tuesday, and many of them testified that the building would clog the narrow, hillside area with traffic, add students to already crowded schools and start a process of unwanted intensive development in the area that borders Elysian Park.
"They're not saying don't build," Barbara Blinderman, the attorney representing residents near the project, summarizing the appeal, told the board. "They're making a very simple request. They're saying, follow the laws you set down by requiring conformity with the Community Plan."
The guidelines of the Community Plan would allow only 12 apartments on the site, even though current zoning would allow the 45 proposed.
The building permit for the project at 1850 Morton Ave., near the intersection of Echo Park Avenue, was issued in October. But the developer, Morton Park Associates of Studio City, was ordered to stop work in December after the City Council passed a moratorium on any construction violating the neighborhood's Community Plan.
Hardship Clause Appeal
The builder then appealed on a hardship clause to the city's Building and Safety Commission, which ruled last month that the permit should be restored because so much work had been done and liabilities incurred.
However, that commission said construction should not resume until the zoning appeals board heard a parallel appeal from area residents that the original permit should not have been issued at all. So far, three houses have been demolished, some grading work done and footings for retaining walls built.
Meanwhile, in January, Judge Cole ruled that the city, as required by state law, had to start to bring its 1948 zoning code into conformity with its more restrictive General Plan, adopted neighborhood by neighborhood. On April 2, the City Council voted, with some qualifications, to begin enforcing the plan until rezoning is complete.
However, Assistant City Atty. Anthony Alperin argued Tuesday that the permit for the Morton Avenue building was valid because, even though the city is in the process of changing its zoning, the permit was issued before the council approved the neighborhood moratorium or the citywide policy change.
'Bite the Bullet'
Two zoning board members, John Mack and vice chairman James Leewong, disagreed. "I believe this body simply just has to bite the bullet . . . and begin to uphold the intent and spirit of the community plan," said Mack. Leewong said he suspected that the developer was aware of moratorium proposals and had been trying to get his project in the door before it was slammed shut.
In contrast, board member Jospeh Mandel said that, although he sympathized with the neighborhood residents, he would "with considerable reluctance" have to follow the advice of the city attorney's office and vote that the permit was valid.
Chairman Nikolas Patsaouras and member Ilene Olansky were absent, making it impossible for neighborhood protesters to garner the third vote they needed.
Alan Cooper, attorney for the developer, could have agreed to extend the appeals period and have another vote taken. But he declined, saying that the matter appeared headed for court no matter what the decision of the zoning board. The builder is considering now whether or not to resume construction in the period before the court hearing, Cooper said.
The issue has become such a rallying point in the neighborhood that both candidates in June's runoff for the 13th District council seat made a point of having their opposition to the apartment building known to the zoning board. Incumbent Peggy Stevenson sent an aide to read a statement denouncing the size of the building; challenger Michael Woo made a similar statement in person.