The Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals has decided that the Westwood Horizons senior citizens' residence is not a full-fledged commercial hotel and that its 300 rooms do not count toward the 350 hotel rooms contemplated in a new development plan for Westwood Village.
"I don't think that site qualifies for that 350 beds in any way, shape or form," said Commissioner Ilene Olansky, before the 4-0 vote that ended a four-hour public debate Tuesday on the question, "What is a hotel?"
Commissioner John Mack, as did others on the board, relied upon a commonly understood meaning of hotel to eliminate Westwood Horizons from that category. "It is not the Century Plaza," Mack said.
The issue was before the board on an appeal of an advisory opinion by Chief Zoning Administrator Franklin Eberhard. He had determined in July that the retirement hotel was never considered a commercial hotel in the four-year battle for a specific development plan for Westwood Village.
The hotel designation for Westwood Horizons was sought by three Westwood homeowner groups attempting to prevent construction of a hotel in the village. The designation was also sought by the owners of the Westwood Horizons property, David and Natalie Roberts, who are trying to preserve the option of converting the building to a commercial hotel in the future.
Although not binding on the director of planning, who has the final say for the city, the board's decision was significant in clarifying that the specific plan called for 350 hotel rooms altogether, not 350 new hotel rooms plus 300 from the Westwood Horizons' property, should it be deemed a commercial hotel.
The board also upheld the plan's prohibition on having two hotels within 500 feet of one another. The parking lot on Glendon Avenue designated as a hotel site in the plan approved in December, 1988, is 75 feet away from Westwood Horizons, so if both were hotels it would violate the plan.
Developer Nansay Corp. has longstanding plans to build a hotel on the Glendon Avenue site that would be blocked if the senior citizens' residence were deemed a hotel.
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Westwood, applauded the ruling, saying that 350 new rooms were exactly what was meant by the plan. The reason the word new wasn't included in the language was because no one thought there was another hotel in the area. That didn't mean Westwood Horizons was overlooked, he said.
"When we looked at that 14-story building at Le Conte and Tiverton, we looked at it as a retirement hotel," Yaroslavsky said.
To demonstrate his point, Yaroslavsky said he picked up the phone and posed as a businessman from New York seeking accommodations for the night at Westwood Horizons. He said he was told they only offered long-term rentals to senior citizens.
But Kenneth Bley, an attorney for the Roberts, who lease the former UCLA dormitory to Westwood Horizons, argued to the zoning board that current use is not the critical factor in defining a hotel.
The retirement residence is a hotel because it has a certificate of occupancy that says it is and because it does not meet the legal definition of retirement hotel or apartment hotel, Bley said.
"This has been and is and will be a hotel," said Bley. "They have the (legal) right to use it as a hotel even if they are now choosing not to do so. They could do that tonight."
Laura Lake, president of Friends of Westwood and vice president of the Westwood Homeowners Assn., told the panel that the homeowner groups have been convinced that Westwood Horizons is a legal hotel and that they made an "innocent mistake" in not treating it as such in the development plan. Urging the zoning board to reverse administrator Eberhard's ruling, Lake said, "We are asking you to undo . . . an open invitation to a second hotel."
Arguing on the other side were Eberhard, Yaroslavsky, attorneys for Nansay, Dori Pye of the Los Angeles Business Council and a consultant who insisted that the intent of the specific plan was for new hotel beds, not to be confused with beds currently occupied by senior citizens.
Eberhard based his opinion in part on the fact that Westwood Horizons does not pay a "bed tax" as commercial hotels do. He further concluded, and the board agreed, that Westwood Horizons could not operate as a hotel unless it came back to the city for conditional-use permits. Depending on when this occurred, the Nansay Corp. may have already have built its hotel, in which case the retirement hotel would be frozen out.
Door Left Open
Westwood Homeowners Assn. President Sandy Brown said after the ruling that she was not satisfied because the door was left open for Westwood Horizons owners to come back in 10 years and get another commercial hotel approved through the conditional-use process. That would circumvent the intention of the specific plan to limit hotel rooms to 350, Brown said, and means that homeowner groups would have to remain vigilant.