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Blueprints and Red Tape : Westwood Project Shows System at Work

August 24, 1986|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

From his suite atop a 17-story office tower that bears his name, David H. Murdock can look out through broad bay windows at the busy sprawl of Westwood Village.

And he can see a dream.

To the west, on a small triangle of land half-hidden behind another tall tower, Murdock envisions a 14-story luxury hotel, crafted of granite, brick and glass, with 215 rooms, a pool, a fitness center and four levels of underground parking.

It is a dream that has taken shape over more than three years--a high-revenue project that Murdock, a powerful international financier, has pictured as a sleek new showcase of elegance and architectural style.

"He wants to be able to walk by and say, 'That's mine, I did that,' " consultant Rudy Cole commented. "That's how he looks at it."

Divided Community

Like many new commercial projects, however, Murdock's vision has divided the surrounding community, creating a bitter split between business leaders who want the hotel and homeowners who oppose it. The tower would be one more big building in the ever-changing tapestry that is Westwood, a crowded landscape of village shops, high-rise office buildings and fashionable homes.

Businessmen say the project would provide badly needed guest rooms and boost retail sales in the village. But homeowners argue that it would worsen Westwood's bumper-to-bumper traffic--already the worst in the city--and destroy the low-rise architectural style that characterizes the village. Residents want to see the 14-story design chopped to just three floors--a move that developers say is economically impractical.

The conflict is typical of the turf wars between developers and homeowners, particularly in the rapidly growing Westside. It is city government's critical task to resolve such battles by determining where new growth can go, and where it cannot.

The process is often lengthy and convoluted. It started three years ago for the Murdock project, just one example of the system at work.

In Westwood, as across all of Los Angeles, community zoning laws lay out the basic framework for handling new growth. Projects that conform to zoning standards can be developed without protracted studies, public hearings or City Council votes.

But often those standards slip out of date. In Westwood and elsewhere, traffic patterns change. Roads are widened, others fail to get built. Centers of commerce bloom and fade, and developers react to that ebb and flow, tearing down old buildings, combining lots, scrambling to cash in.

That is much the story on the narrow slice of land beyond Murdock's office window. The explosive development of Westwood so far has bypassed the half-acre site. For 30 years it has supported the same two operations--a gas station and a tiny car-rental office.

Murdock's plan to change all that has become a quest for zone changes--a complex saga played out by a cast of private consultants, city planners and elected officials. Much of it has gone on behind the scenes, in an esoteric world of traffic studies, geologic reports and closed-door negotiating sessions.

Early financial projections and lobbying efforts have given way to neighborhood uproar and uncertainty. The effort so far has cost Murdock about $300,000, architect Arnold Savrann said. It has produced enough pages of drawings, site maps, traffic reports and environmental studies to fill a library, he said.

As those pages piled up, a design took shape, and then a second, and a third. Unexpected delays and political twists eventually put the project in a race against time as the political winds of Westwood shifted. A project that, in the beginning, appeared to be on a clear path toward approval suddenly began to look shaky as the process wore on.

A final vote is expected soon. The city Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the hotel on Sept. 4, and a victory there, by either side, is expected to be challenged before the City Council. Final action could occur any time this fall.

Unless developers and homeowners reach a last-minute compromise, the stage has been set for a dramatic climax. City planner recommendations would now cut the hotel to half its proposed size, but such a project would not be profitable, Murdock officials say.

And neither faction is yielding.

"We're offering something of quality," architect Savrann declared. "People ought to be glad we're taking that funny little piece of property and doing something with it. They should welcome it with open arms."

Said homeowner Laura Lake: "They're talking about a 14-story building on something the size of two residential lots. Even if you have a seven-story building . . . the physical reality is, it's just too big. "

In the winter of 1983, Ronald Douglas, vice president of Murdock Development Co., sat down to talk business with George Gregson, the crusty, 82-year-old owner of the lot at Gayley Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

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