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Bill Would Help Pave Way for Westwood Mall

Development: State Senate legislation would let builders start the controversial pedestrian shopping center before claims by affected property owners and others are settled.

June 23, 1998|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's either special-interest legislation or just good policy.

Whichever, what is clear is that a little-noticed bill pending in the state Senate would have a major effect on a proposed $84-million Westwood Village development that has pitted residents and a developer in a long, bitter conflict over the fate of a project along bustling Glendon Avenue.

The bill, sponsored by state Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), amends state law governing pedestrian malls. Under the legislation, developers would be allowed to begin construction without waiting for adjudication and payment of claims filed by affected homeowners and others.

In the fight over Westwood Village, which is becoming increasingly like Peyton Place, the devil clearly is in the details. In fact, the current debate only began after opponents of the project made a veiled reference to filing claims and stalling the project. Faced with that prospect, developers scrambled. And the fight was on again.

It has been contentious from the start.

This is the area, after all, with lawn signs urging the city councilman of the district to dump the developer. And the cast of characters in the fight seems to grow exponentially, with both sides lobbing charges and countercharges.

After years of such fighting, the state legislation is the latest weapon brought to the field.

Opponents say the measure takes away their firepower to block the controversial project. Supporters agree that the proposal could determine the outcome, but they applaud it, saying it will allow the developer to secure funds and begin construction without waiting for the courts to litigate claims.

Village Center Westwood, as the project is known, calls for Glendon Avenue to be used for a large-scale shopping center. It would be a "sunken" mall, with underground parking and grand staircases leading down into the complex of stores and movie theaters.

When the developer, Ira Smedra, learned about the pedestrian mall law, he joined forces with the California Business Properties Assn. and found a willing legislator to help carry amendments so Smedra wouldn't be hampered by scores of claims filed by disgruntled neighbors.

"We're not taking anyone's rights," Smedra said. "It changes the procedure--not the outcome."

Some observers aren't buying that.

"I think this is classic politics," said David Roberts, a developer and owner of the Westwood Horizons senior citizen retirement home, who probably would file a claim against the project. "These guys were shopping around . . . and found someone [Murray] who doesn't have a dog in this race."

Others are even more steamed.

"It's the Ira Smedra Memorial Bill," said one observer who is critical of the proposed development. "This just goes beyond the pale."

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For his part, Murray said the legislation merely amends the law and makes the pedestrian mall law consistent with California's eminent-domain procedures.

"There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to do this," Murray said in an interview. "I guess people are so up in arms about Westwood that they believe it does something it doesn't do. . . . I truly believe that no one in Westwood will have any rights of theirs taken away."

Murray's proposal caught officials so much by surprise that some have yet to fully digest it.

City Councilman Mike Feuer, who said he only read the legislation Friday morning, said he has not taken a position on it or decided whether the city should take a formal stand.

"The consequences are unclear to me," Feuer said. "I think it requires more analysis."

But Westwood opponents say they have done all the analysis they need.

"I'm very concerned that Smedra is rewriting state law to his benefit," said Terry Tegnazian, the co-president of Save Westwood Village, a group fighting the Village Center project. "Look at what they're doing: Now the rights of the claimants come first." The legislation would be taking that away, she added.

The legislation, which Murray said he recently amended, will be heard in the Senate Local Government Committee in July. If approved there, it still needs to be approved by other legislative bodies before reaching the governor's desk.

"Nearly every bill that gets introduced is based on some narrow set of problems or potential problems," said Rex Hime, president and chief executive officer of the California Business Properties Assn., who is lobbying on behalf of the legislation. "That happens to be one development that will benefit from it and there are plenty of others in the future that will also benefit."

Hime said that Smedra's development company joined his association in the past eight or nine months and that their support for the legislation was mutual. Smedra said several legislators were approached before Murray agreed to take it on.

"Do you stop something that you think is good policy because you think it helps or hurts a specific project?" Murray said. "This is way, way, way at the end of the process. It is only about what happens when a city wants to block off a street."

But on at least this point, supporters and opponents of the Westwood development agree: This, they say, is not just any street. This is Glendon Avenue.

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