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Neighbors Collect : Developers Find Peace at a Price

February 26, 1989|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

With his swank new Westside hotel sitting empty and losing a reported $800,000 a month, developer Sheldon Gordon struck a desperate deal.

Gordon wrote a check for $250,000 to a group of Los Angeles homeowners that had dragged the project through months of tedious hearings. He also dropped $800,000 into a bank account--to be controlled by him and the homeowners--to find more parking.

The homeowners, in return, consented to leave the Ma Maison Sofitel alone. Within weeks, Gordon was entertaining celebrities at his $50-million hotel, and the homeowners were setting up a "neighborhood preservation fund" with their pot of gold.

'Seen the Light'

"They have seen the light," Harald Hahn, one of the homeowners, proclaimed after signing the agreement. "We made them see the light."

Gordon, speaking later to a reporter, was contemptuous.

"If that's the American way, I am crazy," he said. "It was blackmail."

However appalling to developers, the pay-out in Los Angeles last fall reflects the increasing boldness with which community groups across the state are pushing builders to dig deep into their pockets in the name of neighborhood peace.

The legacy of development disputes in the 1980s, many builders and residents say, can now be measured in dollars and cents. The old compromises--a shorter high-rise or a smaller condominium project--are often no longer enough for residents, who say they cannot rely on unresponsive local governments to look out for their neighborhoods.

"There seems to be very little give and mostly take," said one Los Angeles attorney who represents developers in negotiations with community groups.

The Legal Tab

Frequently, developers are being asked by residents--and they are agreeing--to subsidize their own opposition. It has become an unwritten rule in many areas that builders pick up the tab when they reach an agreement with residents who have hired attorneys, consultants and other experts to dissect their proposals. The bills can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

In discussions that end less amicably, residents sometimes use money paid to them by one developer to take on another. For example:

- Hahn and his group have already received requests from several homeowner organizations--including one near the controversial Westside Pavilion shopping mall 4 miles from the hotel--to spend Gordon's money in their neighborhoods.

- In the San Joaquin Valley, a small Tulare County citizens group opposed to a proposed cogeneration plant in Hanford last year settled a lawsuit against the developer for $100,000 and is using the cash to pursue a separate suit against the same developer. "We have money now, so people are quaking in their boots," said Marcie Williams, who heads Citizens for a Healthy Environment.

- San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth, a residents group concerned about downtown expansion, reportedly received more than $500,000 from developers several years ago in exchange for settling separate lawsuits over proposed skyscrapers. The group paid its bills but also used the money to prepare for the next developer, founder Sue Hestor said. "You kind of just recycle your money," she said.

- In West Los Angeles, the Friends of Westwood homeowners group collected $150,000 for attorney and other costs when it sued to block construction of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. Having already raised some money from its members, the group had an estimated $20,000 to $40,000 from the settlement left over for other causes. Among other things, Friends of Westwood donated $2,000 to a Hollywood group that sued to block the city's redevelopment project there.

Throughout the state, there is a widespread perception among community groups that government has not been doing enough for residents--leaving them to fill the void. Many trace the phenomenon to government cutbacks after Proposition 13, the tax-cutting measure of 1978.

With state and local governments spending less money on things like streets and parks, there has been "a trickling down" of responsibility, as one Sacramento observer explained it.

Expensive Proposition

"It has become very expensive to do what we do," said Sandy Brown, co-founder of Friends of Westwood and a signer of the agreement with Ma Maison Sofitel. "It is something homeowner associations never had to contend with before. . . . I don't think the development community should have to give money to anybody, but on the other hand I don't think the residential community should have to hire experts to defend itself."

Hahn, vice president of the Westside Civic Federation, a coalition of homeowner associations, said community groups have had little choice but to look out for their own needs.

"We don't want to be perceived as being here to milk the developers," he said. "But on the other hand, the city isn't doing a whole lot to protect us, so we have to protect ourselves. It points out a real weakness in our political system."

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