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Blueprints and Red Tape : Westwood Project Shows System at Work

August 24, 1986|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

A planning deputy in Zev Yaroslavsky's office was on the phone to Murdock project managers. Like homeowners, Yaroslavsky had learned of the new 24-story proposal. And he had hit the roof.

"It probably took my staff several minutes to get me off the ceiling," the councilman recalled later.

Yaroslavsky said he considered the revamped, taller tower a breach of promise by Murdock officials.

"Our feeling was, this wasn't the same project we had originally talked about," chief planning deputy Ginny Kruger remembered.

Yaroslavsky recalls issuing an edict: The hotel could be no taller than the structure next door--a medical building that was 154 feet tall, barely half the size of the proposed hotel tower.

Already hemmed in by the small site, developers now had to work with a height limit. Marketing reports were yet to be done, but corporate wisdom said the project had to contain at least 200 rooms to justify its cost. As Cole put it, "If we can't build 200 rooms, we're not going to have a project."

"So the challenge is, how do you do a building that does not exceed 154 feet, but still contains 200 rooms?" architect Arnold Savrann asked.

Tower Discarded

Savrann responded by discarding the octagonal tower. Back at the drawing board, he began in March, 1984, to make rough pencil sketches. "I did a plan that responded to the triangular shape of the site," Savrann said. "I was able to get 21 rooms per floor . . . which meant I could reduce the floors of the building." Those rough sketches eventually would produce the current proposal, a 14-story, 215-room design that complied with Yaroslavsky's demand.

But the drawings took months. It was not until August, about eight months after the environmental work began, that the first reports and statistics were ready for review by city planners.

"That's kind of a long time," planner Tramel noted. "Normally, that takes two or three months."

At the time, planners were flooded with other environmental impact report cases, resulting in further delays. It would be December before they would be able to review the reports and decide that revisions were needed.

But the political climate of Westwood had begun to change. Development seemed to loom everywhere.

Three new office towers had been planned for Wilshire Boulevard. Another hotel, proposed by the Gemtel Corp., had been designed to bring 410 rooms, in 27 stories, to a site just three blocks from Murdock's, nearer to the homes south of Wilshire.

"That (Gemtel project) was going to have Las Vegas entertainment and several movie theaters," remembered Lake, a south Westwood resident. That project, the Murdock project, the office towers--all had their effect on community thinking: "I wound up joining the board of the homeowners association," Lake said. "I started feeling really concerned over commercial development."

Residents Organized

Homeowners were becoming organized, holding meetings. They fought for stiffer zoning restrictions at the Gemtel site, helping to bring about a three-story height limit that effectively killed the project. In that summer of 1984, several homeowners groups formed Friends of Westwood, a 300-member organization dedicated to controlling large-scale commercial growth. Their political power was growing.

Homeowners met with Yaroslavsky. The councilman, who had pushed through zoning to quash the Gemtel project, once again urged them to consider support for the Murdock hotel because of its possible benefit to the village. "Just to say no to every project is not serving the best interests of Westwood," he explained in an interview. "If you were going to build a project in Westwood . . . this would be the site to do it."

At the same time, Yaroslavsky felt that overall zoning plans for Westwood, established in the early 1970s, were overdue for change.

"Those other projects in the area aroused the homeowners, galvanized them against growth," Murdock representative Cole would say later. "So we got caught in a cross fire. It's like saying, 'Do you mind if I have a dog?' And someone says, 'No, I don't mind if you have a dog.' But then suddenly there are 12 killer dogs in every house in the neighborhood. And now you ask, 'May I keep my dog?'

"No. Please get rid of your dog."

First Moratorium

In August, Yaroslavsky introduced the first of two proposed building moratoriums designed to halt major commercial development in Westwood while the two community plans could be studied. One planning area surrounded the other: Greater Westwood, which included Wilshire Boulevard, encircled Westwood Village, where particularly tough zoning laws were likely to get tougher.

The moratoriums were heavily lobbied. In a dramatic vote, the City Council broke tradition and went against the councilman of the district, defeating Yaroslavsky's moratorium for Wilshire Boulevard. As an alternative, council members opted for an innovative traffic-fee plan, asking developers to pay into a pool of funds to help finance needed street improvements in greater Westwood.

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