Overturning a unanimous decision by its Planning Commission, the West Hollywood City Council voted this week to conditionally approve expansion of the Writers Guild of America West Inc. headquarters.
About 40 people in the standing-room-only audience at West Hollywood Park Auditorium on Monday night rose to speak before the council voted 4 to 1 to grant an appeal by the screenwriters' union that would permit construction of additional offices, a parking garage and two residential townhouse units on its property off Beverly Boulevard at Almont Drive and Rosewood Avenue.
Final approval of construction is contingent upon several changes in design and landscaping that would make the project less objectionable to residents who are concerned about its size and impact on the neighborhood.
A City Council staff report addressing these concerns recommended that the council overturn the Planning Commission's decision to deny construction permits.
'Appeal Should Be Denied'
Speaking for the planning board, Commissioner Steve Smith told the council, "The commission unanimously and very strongly feels the appeal should be denied."
He added that the commission "is not shy about adding 20 items to mitigate the negative impact of a project. We could not find any mitigation that would be sufficient here. The fate of a stable, coherent neighborhood is being forfeited to P.R. concerns."
Several guild representatives said the union must expand its headquarters or leave West Hollywood.
Attorney Tom Mesereau reminded the council that the guild is "not a business, or a real estate investment firm. We operate at a deficit." He said the guild has been a "good citizen" of West Hollywood by making its boardroom and theater on Doheny Avenue available for city functions, by keeping its script library open to the public and by its members' participation in volunteer projects in the city.
Before the meeting, Karen Clark, a West Hollywood resident and guild member whose writing credits include "The Long Journey Home," admitted that she was nervous about addressing her colleagues who had come to speak for guild expansion, even though "I give the guild a lot of money." Clark, who lives on Rosewood, said she feared that the commercialization would set a precedent for the rest of her block.
Clark believes that the expansion is unnecessary. "I've seen how many employees they have--only 74," she said. "Most of our meetings don't take place at the guild anyway. We meet at the Writers Guild Theater or at the Palladium."
Professional writers were not only outnumbered at the meeting, they were also outstripped rhetorically by members of homeowners groups and residents. One member of the West Hollywood West homeowners association called the expansion "a cancer in the neighborhood." Another said construction would "stifle the cool breezes and create a mini-greenhouse effect" on the block.
When Ethel Shapiro, a community activist and gadfly, asked audience members opposing the project to stand, about two-thirds of those in attendance rose to their feet.
After hearing more than threehours of emotionally charged testimony, council members spoke about the difficulty of the decision. Paul Koretz said: "One of the treasures we were given upon cityhood was the Writers Guild. The other treasure was a single-family (residence) neighborhood. I don't want to see the neighborhood ruined. I don't want to see the Writers Guild lost."
Helen Albert said she feared that, if the Writers Guild appeal were denied and the union were to vacate its headquarters, "someone else would do something far worse to the neighborhood."
Ultimately, Councilman Steve Schulte cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the council may have erred when it initially changed the property's zoning to commercial in adopting the city's General Plan last year. "It is not beyond us to admit that there might have been a mistake," he said. "That's what the planning commission has seen. We have to come to grips with that."
Reacting to the vote, Smith said, "The council acted for honorable reasons but came to a regrettable decision." He attributed the vote to "chamber of commerce-type thinking. We have one good Chamber of Commerce already. The council may be turning itself into a second one, regrettably at the expense of the neighborhoods. If it lost the guild, the city would suffer a temporary P.R. setback. But the loss of the neighborhood is permanent."