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Probe of Inspectors Focuses on Troubled Mini-Mall

Construction: Site was shut down last month for code violations. But the developer blames the city for approving flawed plans.

June 11, 1996|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the projects under scrutiny for possible wrongdoing by Los Angeles Building and Safety Department employees is a Miracle Mile mini-mall where construction was abruptly halted last month because the plans violate several local codes, city officials said Monday.

The city is examining why engineers signed off on the blueprints for the mini-mall despite its spillover into a residential zone, inadequate parking and zoning for a solo tenant.

"We are certainly investigating this one," said Arthur Devine, executive officer of the Building and Safety Department. "I know we have some problems out there."

But Devine and other department officials would not say whether this is connected to a broader probe of building and safety employees for allegedly soliciting bribes and approving projects that do not meet regulations.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 12, 1996 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Building and Safety--A headline in Tuesday's editions of The Times incorrectly stated that inspectors at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety are under investigation for problems at a Miracle Mile mini-mall. In fact, engineers who check plans, not inspectors, are being scrutinized in that case.

"I have never in my life, ever, seen a project that was so grossly disregarding of the zoning," complained county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who lives near the site at Beverly Boulevard and Detroit Street and said he has been briefed about the matter by officials. "This is not an honest mistake."

At City Hall, others familiar with the probe said the handling of the matter as a formal investigation indicated the seriousness of the suspicions.

"When you have someone who's sloppy or less than competent, you give them training," said one high-ranking building and safety official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noting that the department had instead chosen to launch a top-secret probe of what went wrong. "You're not going to investigate."

The architect and the owner of the project, which would replace the Samy's Camera store that burned during the 1992 riots, say that if there is a problem with the plans, it is the city's fault for approving them.

Meanwhile, the mini-mall remains unfinished, a skeleton of would-be stores surrounded by scaffolding, steel beams and piles of dirt.

On the quiet urban street of Spanish-style duplexes built in the 1930s, neighbors are divided on the fate of the project. A woman whose property abuts the place--and who was paid $4,000 by the developer to have a wall moved a foot closer to her building--wants it finished. People down the block, though, are complaining about increased traffic and declining property values.

"How does a person go and destroy a neighborhood?" asked Sam Frank, who has lived on Detroit Street for 36 years. "I thought they were going to put up [a building like] whatever was there. All of a sudden I see the steel, they're putting up a prison! I'm not going to be happy until they tear it down and put up an edifice that's within the legal limits."

After Yaroslavsky and City Councilman Mike Feuer received dozens of complaints such as Frank's, the city found that the project's plans and permits violated several zoning codes.

On May 21, the Building and Safety Department issued a stop-work order on the project and sent the owner a notice of intent to revoke his permits. Developer/owner Mike Nazarian faces a choice between gutting the structure--which he says has already consumed $1 million and is 80% built--and fighting for a variance.

"They're very much mistreating me," said Nazarian, who along with his architect says he received no special favors in the permitting process. "One thing I know is I'm being ruined here."

Rachel Rothstein, the next-door neighbor who supports the mini-mall, said that since the riots the empty lot has been plagued by graffiti. Now she is worried about children getting hurt in open trenches on the site.

"I grew up in this house, my kids grew up in this house. Hopefully, my grandkids will," Rothstein said. "Why should a man who paid so much money have to pay a half a million more to move it, for a mistake the city made? No one told him he couldn't do this."

No one has been accused of wrongdoing in the case, and the public records leave open the question of how the troubled project went forward.

Nazarian's architect, Bijan Dardashti, came to City Hall to have his plans checked Nov. 27, 1995, according to an application for a building permit at the Building and Safety Department. Engineer Sam Lee wrote out a correction sheet listing items that needed fixing, Lee and other department officials said.

"There were a lot of problems with it," Lee, a city employee since 1989, said in an interview Monday.

Dardashti returned Jan. 12 with a second set of plans, according to the application for the permit. The application shows that the permit was approved by a second engineer, Rafael Cornejo, who signed "for Sam Lee."

Top department officials said they either could not release or did not have a copy of Lee's correction sheet, so they were unable to say whether the items mentioned were among the current problems with the project or whether the architect fixed them in his second set of plans. Lee said he could not release the corrections without a supervisor's permission.

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