A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled that a developer may proceed with construction of a 45-unit apartment complex in Echo Park despite neighbors' claims that the project violates Los Angeles' general plan.
Judge John L. Cole said Tuesday that the developer already has spent so much money on the project at 1850 Morton Ave., near the intersection of Echo Park Avenue, that to stop it now "would not be equitable."
The Elysian Heights Residents Assn. asked Cole to revoke the project's building permit because the Los Angeles City Council has passed a moratorium on buildings in the Echo Park-Silver Lake area that do not agree with the general plan.
Order on Zoning
The city was ordered by Cole in a separate case in January to bring its 1946 zoning maps into conformity with the newer and more restrictive plan, which would have allowed only a 12-unit building on the site.
The residents also argued that the project would clog the narrow hillside street with traffic, add students to already crowded schools and prompt intensive development in the neighborhood bordering Elysian Park.
Cole declined to rule on whether the city erred by issuing the permit based on the zoning maps instead of on the general plan. Instead, he said, any harm from the project to protesting neighbors would be of "a more intangible sort" than the harm the developer would suffer if the permit were revoked.
"The city is the culprit here. But that doesn't mean the we should take it out on the real party," the judge said during a hearing Tuesday morning, referring to the developer, Morton Park Associates of Studio City.
Neighborhood Impact Stressed
Jeffrey S. Cohen, one of the neighborhood association's attorneys, argued that the entire neighborhood would be affected by the project. "We are not talking about just one or two people who are upset because their hot tub is going to be looked on," he said.
Allan Cooper, the developer's attorney, said his client has signed contracts worth more than $500,000, has graded the site and has built a retaining wall. Cooper said Morton Park Associates abided by a agreement to limit work, while the case was in progress, to construction that could be adapted for a 12-unit building.
Asked later whether construction would now resume full swing, Cooper said: "I can't imagine why not."
Katharine Gosho-Tripp, a leader of the residents association, called Cole's ruling a "tremendous miscarriage of justice" and said her group will consider an appeal if members can afford it. She said legal fees from administrative hearings and courts total more than $5,000, with much of that to be paid through small donations and the proceeds of yard sales and pot-luck dinners.
'Bewildered' by Decision
Cohen said she was "bewildered" by Cole's decision because the judge had taken such a strong stand in previous cases on requiring the city to follow the general plan.
Before making his decision, the judge indicated that, even though he ordered the city to start the mammoth job of rezoning, the process will be slow and there will be painful exceptions to the general plan along the way.
'Got the Mule's Attention'
"It appears to me that when you have a big ship and want it to reverse its course, you just can't stop it," he said. "You have to slow it down.
"Clearly, this is one of those situations when somebody is going to be very unhappy. But we finally got the mule's attention, the mule being the city."
In his written decision, released several hours after the hearing, the judge noted that it is possible that the general plan might be amended to accommodate the Morton Avenue project
The City Council in April voted, with some qualifications, to begin enforcing the general plan citywide until rezoning is complete. Four months before that, the council had adopted the moratorium for Echo Park-Silver Lake area.
Morton Park Associates obtained its building permit in October but was ordered in December, in the wake of the moratorium, to stop work. Under a hardship clause of the moratorium, the developer successfully appealed the case in March to the city's Building and Safety Commission.
In April, neighbors took the matter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals, which voted 2 to 1 in their favor at a meeting in which two board members were absent. Three votes were needed to revoke the permit, so the developer's case was upheld.
The residents then took their case to Superior Court.
Through all the hearings, the neighborhood group argued that Morton Park Associates should have known about the moratorium and the general plan and should have realized that any investment was at its own risk. The company's investment should not be considered any hardship, the residents said.
At one point in the controversy, Cooper claimed that the protesters were merely trying to stop low- and moderate-income renters from moving into the neighborhood. That was strenuously denied by the residents association, which described the area as already racially and economically integrated.