The Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals voted Tuesday to block construction of a disputed hotel in the Pines section of Harbor City, ending an eight-month struggle by residents to preserve the neighborhood's residential character.
By a 3-0 vote, the board overturned a ruling in June by the city's zoning administrator that would have allowed construction of the 10-room hotel on the 1600 block of 262nd Street. The board is the final arbiter on such matters in the city, although its decisions can be challenged in court.
"The system works, but it is kind of painful to get there," said Martin Lonky, who helped lead neighborhood opposition to the hotel. " . . . It is a grand exercise, maybe at the expense of a lot of emotions."
More than 50 residents waited nearly all afternoon in hot City Hall corridors Tuesday for the board to consider their appeal of the zoning administrator's ruling. The board, delayed because of a lengthy hearing on another case, finally turned to the hotel issue at 6:15 p.m.--four hours after it was scheduled.
Two elderly residents left before the hearing--one because an oxygen tank he uses to breathe was running low--but the other residents stayed, saying they wanted the appeals board to see their resolve. About 80 residents attended a hearing on the same issue before the board last month, and scores of residents attended several earlier hearings held by the zoning administrator and the city's Planning Commission.
"There is no way we are going to give up now," said resident Jeri Freick, as dozens of her neighbors paced outside the fifth-floor hearing room waiting for the board to take up the issue.
Not According to Plan
The board's decision to block the hotel stunned both its developer, William Freeman, and his attorney, Kenneth B. Bley, who had argued that Freeman had a right to build the hotel because his property is zoned for commercial uses. Freeman said he will attempt to have the board's decision overturned in court.
Freeman received a building permit last March, but after demolishing a house on the property and digging trenches for the hotel's foundation, he was ordered by city building inspectors to halt construction.
City planning officials said the Building and Safety Department should not have issued the building permit because the property, while zoned for commercial use, had been designated for low-density residential development in the Wilmington-Harbor City District Plan. Under state law, the city is prohibited from issuing permits for projects that do not conform with the district plan unless a special review process and public hearing are held.
The city's so-called "consistency map," which the Building and Safety Department uses to identify properties that need the special review process, erroneously showed Freeman's property as having the same zoning and planning designations, the planning officials said. Based on the erroneous map, the building permit was issued, they said.
Freeman appealed to the city's zoning administrator, who ruled in June that the property's designation as residential in the district plan is "ambiguous." Associate Zoning Administrator John J. Parker Jr. said the boundary between commercial and residential uses on the district plan map falls in the middle of Freeman's property. And unlike the city planners who determined that the designation was intended to be residential, Parker concluded that it was supposed to be commercial.
Parker ruled that the Department of Building and Safety should not have ordered Freeman to stop construction on the hotel, and that the building permit was valid. At that point, the neighbors and harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores appealed to the zoning board.
The board members, while saying they did not want to deprive Freeman of his rights to develop his property, ended up siding with the neighbors, in part because they said Freeman should have been aware of the confusion about his property and should have sought a clarification before beginning construction.
Does Not Belong
"It is hard to grant equity . . . to a person who, according to the facts, was notified of a problem, immediately went and demolished the (house), and proceeded ahead," said board member James D. Leewong. "The applicant is aware that there is a consistency procedure."
Freeman denies that he knew about the error in the consistency map until mid-April--several weeks after he had demolished the home--when a reporter from The Times told him about it. But residents have charged that Freeman knew about the problem earlier but chose to ignore it.
In joining Leewong and member Nikolas Patsaouras in voting to overturn the zoning administrator's ruling, board Chairwoman Ilene Olansky said she visited the Pines and concluded that a hotel does not belong there.
"By no stretch of the imagination is this site appropriate for anything other than a single dwelling," she said. "Somewhere along the way, this site got lost."
Residents of the Pines celebrated their victory Tuesday night, while Lonky and others began tallying the neighborhood's bills. The residents had rented buses to transport them to the series of hearings. They had hired an attorney to represent them, and they paid former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, now a private consultant, to testify on their behalf at Tuesday's hearing.
"We raised a lot of money going from house to house," said Lonky, who said he would not have a final tally for several weeks. "The people banded together in a sense of community. They have chipped in thousands of dollars."