Given the anti-growth sentiment on the Westside, developer George I. Rosenthal knew that the only way he would be allowed to build high-rise offices on two choice parcels his company owns on Olympic Boulevard would be to join forces with those who would fight tooth and nail to stop him.
That's why two years ago Rosenthal, the president of Raleigh Enterprises, began courting Sawtelle neighborhood groups.
To start with, he has suggested changing the community's name from Sawtelle to the more descriptive Garden District, in recognition of the many nurseries in the area.
He put up $350,000 to sponsor an international design competition for a 10-block stretch of Olympic Boulevard to give residents a look at the possibilities for the area. Residents were among jurors who judged 85 proposals submitted by designers and architects from around the world.
And more recently, he surprised residents with an offer to finance the writing of a new community plan that could raise an estimated $35 million for neighborhood parks, affordable housing and other amenities.
The plan could eventually set tough new restrictions on development for their entire community from the San Diego Freeway to Bundy Drive, from Nebraska Avenue to Pico Boulevard.
The goal, Rosenthal said, was to create a community plan "carefully crafted to include a balance of residential, commercial, office and retail uses."
Community reaction to Rosenthal's proposal has been warm, even though no group has formally endorsed it.
The initial reaction to the plan was one of suspicion. "We wanted to know what's in it for him," said Jon Shaughnessy, president of the Westside Residents Assn., a group founded six years ago after a successful fight to block the construction of a 12-story office building nearby.
What Rosenthal says he wants in return is the opportunity to build higher than the law now allows by bending the rules of Proposition U, the 1986 slow-growth initiative that cut in half the allowable density of high-rise office construction along Olympic Boulevard.
Under the provisions of the initiative, the maximum allowable floor space of a building is 1 1/2 times the area of the lot it sits on. Practically speaking, this means that most new buildings cannot exceed three or four stories.
Rosenthal, however, is seeking to get around this limit by purchasing "airspace" from other properties along Olympic Boulevard that are not developed to their full potential. By transferring these development rights to his own property, he would be able to erect buildings with twice the square footage allowed by Proposition U--enough for a building of perhaps 10 stories.
Under city zoning law, it is difficult to transfer such development rights unless the arrangement is part of a "specific plan" for an overall neighborhood design and is approved by the City Council. In practice, this means that the council member whose district includes the neighborhood in question must endorse the project.
The city councilman for the Sawtelle area is Marvin Braude, a co-author of Proposition U, and Rosenthal says Braude is far more likely to support the development proposal if area residents are solidly behind it.
Rosenthal has two incentives, neighbors say: a trust fund for projects in the community, and a specific plan that protects the area from future high-density development.
Besides, he said: "Ultimately, the area will be developed with or without a plan. . . . It's better to have one."
The details of his plan have not been worked out, but Rosenthal estimates that fees paid by him and other developers who want to increase the size of their projects under the specific plan could raise about $35 million in the coming years to be used as a trust fund for projects in the community.
"Our goal is to deal with the area as a whole because a well-planned area enhances the value of all surrounding properties," he said. "In many ways, the Garden District represents a clean slate. We think it is the last area on the Westside that is not committed to an irreversible plan.
Raleigh Enterprises, Rosenthal's company, is headquartered at 11444 Olympic Blvd. in the Executive Life Center, an 11-story building that it developed jointly with Executive Life Insurance Co. Raleigh Enterprises and Executive Life also have developed the 17-story Executive Towers nearby.
The two parcels Rosenthal would like to develop next are a 100,000-square-foot lot on the southeast corner of Sawtelle and Olympic boulevards and a 150,000-square-foot parcel on the northwest corner of Barrington Avenue and Olympic.
Residents who live north and south of the 10-block stretch of Olympic between the San Diego Freeway and Bundy Drive say they have come to distrust developers who, they say, have failed to keep promises. But some say there was something different about Rosenthal's approach.