The Los Angeles Planning Commission ruled Thursday that developers must cut in half the number of seats in a proposed theater complex if they want to proceed with plans to develop the site of the old Schwab's drugstore on Sunset Boulevard.
The decision pleased neither the developers nor neighborhood residents concerned about getting in and out of their homes if traffic worsens in congested intersections at the foot of Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
Homeowner groups had argued that there should be no movie theaters at all, while the developers said that their deal with a nationwide theater chain required at least 500 seats more than the 1,000-seat limit set by the commission on the recommendation of City Councilman Michael Woo.
"I'm recognizing that it's splitting the baby," said Commission President Daniel P. Garcia. "I, for one, feel very much torn by this case."
He noted that in the last six years a series of measures, most recently the Proposition U slow-growth initiative, has reduced the maximum development that would be allowed for that parcel of land by 75%.
"These reductions have had significant economic impacts," he said.
Additionally, he noted that the $40-million project is consistent with the city's community plan, a legally binding document that calls for entertainment, hotels and offices along that stretch of the Sunset Strip.
"There's an irony here, because for years people have said they wanted community plans enforced by zoning, and in this case the homeowners are asking that we disregard the community plan," Garcia said.
"On the other hand," he said, "all of us agree that traffic at this intersection is bad and it will only get worse."
The vote was 3 to 1, with Commissioner Suzette Neiman voting against Garcia's proposed compromise.
She said that traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard is already congested and that further study is needed before the city agrees to grant the zoning change required for the project.
According to a traffic study commissioned by the developers, the project would increase traffic by up to 2% at the intersection.
"It's horrendous," Neiman said. "Not only are there jillions of cars (now), but there will be jillions of people waiting in line to get in."
According to David Duncan, a Woo aide who took part in negotiations between the developer and neighborhood groups, the reduction in theater seats would reduce the impact on traffic to a significant degree.
"Even though the developer said the original proposal would not have a significant impact on traffic, it comes in clusters, and the reduction in the number of seats will mitigate that effect, especially on weekends," he said.
In addition to the 1,000-seat limit, down from an original proposal of 1,940, the commission also said that building should be set back from residential areas on the east and south by at least 20 feet to minimize its impact on the neighborhood.
It also set a strict parking minimum of one space for each three theater seats, required that no traffic be allowed to enter or leave from Sunset Boulevard and that security guards patrol the area day and night.
The major problem for developer Fred W. Jacobs seemed to be the seating limit, however.
"It's going to be tough," said Jacobs, chief financial officer for Condor Wescorp, which has signed a lease with Kansas City-based American Multi-Cinema (AMC) to build a multi-screen movie theater as part of a complex that is also to include a branch of New York's popular Carnegie Deli.
Threat of Litigation
"The theater owners aren't going to go for less than 1,500 seats, so it's either litigation or they'll walk away from the deal," he said. "Most likely litigation."
Garcia said the commission could not be bound by an agreement between the developer and "some faceless corporation." In any case, he said, Thursday's action would give Wescorp a legitimate excuse for breaking the lease.
Gregory S. Rutkowski, vice president of AMC, declined to say whether AMC would be able to make a profit on a 1,000-seat theater at the Sunset Boulevard location, which last month he called "a very attractive theater site"
"That's certainly a dramatic development from what was originally planned for the site," he said Thursday. "That's a big jump."
Leaders of neighborhood groups were also less than enthusiastic about the commission's decision.
'Better Than It Was'
"It's not what we wanted, but it's better than it was," said Jimmy Bryant, head of the Hollywood-Crescent Homeowners Assn. and spokesman for the Hollywood Neighborhood Associations Coalition, an ad hoc group formed to fight the 8000 Sunset proposal.
"It's a very qualified success," said Melanie Topp of Lookout Mountain Associates, a homeowners group that recently fought a battle to limit the development of undersized lots in the Hollywood Hills.
She had argued earlier that a different project should be found for the site, one that would include residential, commercial and office space instead of movie theaters.
The idea got a sympathetic response from Garcia, but he said it was not up to the city to decide what private developers would build on their land.
In any case, the project is up for review only because a zoning change is needed to extend the development to a rear parcel now reserved for residential use.
The frontage along Sunset Boulevard, Crescent Heights Boulevard and Laurel Avenue is already zoned for as much as 80,000 square feet of commercial use, but Duncan said the entire area may be downzoned under a new community plan now being drawn up.
Woo's deputy said the new plan may be in place by next spring.