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Amid Intrigue, Beverly Hills OKs Apartments on Wilshire

Neighbors oppose converting an office building, saying city misled the public by sanitizing secret memo.

January 09, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

A controversial plan to convert a Wilshire Boulevard office tower into an apartment building has been approved by Beverly Hills officials amid charges of a city coverup over the legality of the project.

In a unanimous vote, City Council members agreed Tuesday night to turn an 11-story office building at Wilshire and Stanley Drive into 37 rental units. Officials said the project will help relieve a shortage of apartments in the wealthy community known for its upscale shops and opulent mansions.

The action was condemned by nearby homeowners. They contend that the conversion will double the population of their neighborhood and destroy its tranquillity by adding balconies and a rooftop recreation area to the office building.

Opponents asserted that a secret memo written by the Beverly Hills city attorney's office acknowledged that the planned office-to-apartments conversion might be illegal.

Residents will meet to map their options for a lawsuit, said their lawyer, Robert Silverstein, who charged that Beverly Hills officials misled the public by issuing a second, sanitized memo that played down the project's possible legal problems.

On Wednesday, the city denied wrongdoing and asserted that the council's vote was both legal and proper. A city lawyer condemned Silverstein for being in unauthorized possession of a confidential memo.

But Silverstein said that in the Nov. 9 memorandum, Beverly Hills' assistant city attorney Robert H. Pittman admitted that the legality of the office conversion was questionable. Silverstein said a rewritten, "public" version of the memo that toned down the alleged problems was issued 11 days later.

"The act of using secret memoranda in conspiring to violate the law is alarming," said Silverstein, who said the memo was leaked to him by an anonymous source.

Beverly Hills officials proposed rezoning a 12-block section of Wilshire last year to allow the conversion of high-rise offices into apartments. By Tuesday night's council meeting, the plan had been scaled back to include only the building at 8601 Wilshire.

Pittman's first memo states that the city's environmental analysis "partially complies with the California Environmental Quality Act," adding that "the adequacy of the environmental review becomes cloudier" when impacts of "piecemeal" zoning are considered. It says opponents of the project raise "valid concerns" that spot zoning was an attempt by the city to avoid preparing a full-scale environmental report on the conversion proposal.

The second memo states that the city's environmental analysis "fully complies with the dictates of the California Environmental Quality Act," adding that city documents contain "substantial evidence to support the determination that an EIR [environmental impact report] is not required."

Pittman said "it is unlikely the courts would sustain a CEQA challenge" based on arguments that piecemeal, spot zoning is taking place.

Pittman declined to comment on the first memo Wednesday, describing it as a confidential communication between lawyer and client. He said the city stands by the second, public memorandum.

Pittman charged that Silverstein has violated his attorney's code of professional conduct by obtaining and making public the confidential memo. He said his law firm, which contracts to serve as Beverly Hills' city attorney, is contemplating filing a complaint against Silverstein with the State Bar of California.

Silverstein, who described the city's action as "something Orwellian," said he isn't worried.

"How many other projects have been approved based on phony memoranda fed to the public that were at variance with secret memoranda?" he said.

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