In its first major land-use decision since incorporation a year ago, the West Hollywood City Council has voted to allow a British company to restore the Sunset Towers and to convert the historic apartment building into a luxury hotel.
The council last week approved a variance and conditional-use permit to allow the project to go ahead, although it is larger and has less on-site parking than required in the city code.
But one of the 42 conditions that the city wants to impose on the developer, the St. James's Club of London, could prove a sticking point.
Project manager David Becker said it is unreasonable for the city to tell the club where and when to build an auxiliary 52-space parking lot, required in addition to the 76 spaces proposed for the hotel's garage.
City officials want the lot, which will be used chiefly by employees, built before the hotel opens. The city has also suggested that the additional parking should be no more than 500 feet from the hotel to encourage employees to use it.
Arlen H. Andelson, a lawyer who represents the club, called the requirement unreasonable. He said that even if the St. James's Club could find a parcel close to the hotel, the cost of the land might make the whole project unfeasible. The club also wants the option of opening a temporary lot now and finding a permanent location later.
"You can't just decide in a modern city that you can put parking 500 feet away," said Becker. "You may hit an office building and they are not going to take it down so you can put in parking. We want to comply but we are not sure if we can."
Becker said the parking requirement is the only snag that could prevent the project from going ahead. Negotiations between the city and Andelson are continuing.
City officials said the St. James's Club may be the last hope for the restoration of the Sunset Towers at 8358 Sunset Blvd. The 1931-vintage Art Deco building was once the glamorous home of movie stars. But vandals have stolen some of the fixtures and defaced the building in the last five years, when it has been vacant except for a former owner who lived for a time in the penthouse. Several plans to restore the structure, including one that would have converted the apartments to condominiums, have fallen through.
The British company, which operates clubs in London and Antigua, plans to spend $25 million on the Sunset Towers. A four-story annex will be joined to the existing tower, which is 12 stories high along Sunset Boulevard and 16 stories along De Longpre Avenue.
All work will be based on the original design of the building, which was placed on the Federal Registry of Historical Landmarks in 1980.
Preservationists said they fear that the building will be torn down if the St. James's Club plan falls through.
Marian Gibbons, president of a preservationist group called Hollywood Heritage, said that at times she has believed that restoration of the Sunset Towers was hopeless. "I just had such a feeling of doom about that building," she said. "It wasn't until the St. James's Club came along that I had any feeling of optimism at all."
Gibbons said the club is the first company with enough "money, commitment and expertise in restoration" to complete the project.
City officials said the project is so important that they are willing to overlook problems such as the shortage of parking.
"If this were a standard hotel project," said a report by city engineer Bob Mimiaga, "the deficiencies in traffic, parking and access alone would be grounds to recommend denial of the application."
But Mimiaga's report concluded: "This is not a standard project. It gives the city the opportunity to retain and restore a very special structure. The decision to approve or deny an application on a project such as this becomes much less a professional planning/engineering judgment and much more a value judgment on the part of the community."
The majority of speakers at last week's public hearing said they went along with that value judgment, although some in the immediate neighborhood said they are concerned about increased traffic, late-night and early-morning noise and the loss of on-street parking.
City officials had proposed that all deliveries be made between 6 and 10 a.m., but residents at the hearing complained that their sleep would be interrupted. They persuaded the City Council to change the delivery period to 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Neighbors were unsuccessful in getting an earlier closing hour for the proposed restaurant and bar, despite claims that late-night noise would keep them awake. The closing time will remain 2 a.m.
Peter Griffin, who lives on De Longpre Avenue near the building, said the city's traffic study was inaccurate. Griffin said key intersections were omitted from the study and that traffic flows were measured early in the week, when he said not as many cars use Sunset.
The city's report stated that the hotel would have a negligible impact on traffic in the area, but Griffin said he suspects that the impact will be much greater than expected.
He said the developers' plan provided parking spaces but no method to guarantee that employees and guests will use them.
Finally, resident Ira Stein said he fears that some residents would not be able to use the club because of restrictive entrance requirements.
Project manager Becker assured the City Council that no one would be excluded from the club. "There is no secret society or white hoods," he said.
Becker said the only factor limiting entry will be a dress code.
But the City Council earlier this year outlawed dress codes at clubs and restaurants because they said the restrictions have been used in the past to exclude homosexuals from some establishments.