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Westwood Project Gets City's OK

Compromises pave the way for the council's unanimous approval of the $100-million commercial and housing development.

August 19, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Developer Alan Casden on Wednesday won unanimous approval from the Los Angeles City Council for a $100-million Westwood Village project that many hope can help revitalize the once-vibrant neighborhood.

The council's action capped more than three years of wrangling with Westwood Village activists and merchants. The 13-0 vote, however, came after one final 11th-hour compromise in a long series of compromises -- this time on parking.

Under pressure from merchants, Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the community, brokered a deal under which Casden would provide two hours' free parking to the public for a year after Palazzo Westwood received its occupancy permit.

The project's victory represented a remarkable turnaround for a site that has sparked contentious debate for more than a decade.

"After 14 years, the final piece of the puzzle was worked out about five minutes ago," Sandy Brown, president of Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Assn., told the council before the vote. "We are anxious now for the project to get going."

Two Westwood merchants also urged the council to approve the 446,700-square-foot project. But both said they would have continued to voice opposition had Weiss' office not negotiated the parking deal.

The commercial and residential development will sit atop two prime pieces of real estate along Glendon Avenue, just east of Westwood Boulevard.

Supporters say the project could bring a much-needed boost to Westwood, a onetime favorite of pedestrians, moviegoers and people-watchers that has fallen on hard times. After gang gunfire in 1988 killed a bystander outside one of the Village's trendiest restaurants, huge numbers of shoppers and moviegoers stopped coming. Many never came back. Safety fears, combined with high rents and economic malaise, sapped the Village of its former vitality.

The neighborhood, which borders UCLA, has been plagued by high commercial vacancy rates and has failed to compete with such popular retailing destinations as the Grove in the Fairfax district, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and the spruced-up Westfield Shoppingtown Century City.

Howard Katz, a vice president of Casden Properties, said his company expects to begin demolition and grading in a couple of months. The project is expected to take 2 1/2 years to complete.

With 350 apartments and about 50,000 square feet of retail space, the project is shorter and smaller, by 15%, than Casden had originally envisioned.

In recent months, as the project worked its way through the city's approval process, Casden had bowed to residents' insistence that he preserve Glendon Manor, an apartment building at the site's southern end that dates to the Village's early days, and that he leave Glendon Avenue partly open during construction. He had planned to close the street.

Before the council vote, Weiss praised property owners, merchants and Casden representatives for arriving at a consensus.

"You did what people said you would not, could not, do," Weiss said.

That the project could muster such wide-ranging support seemed unlikely late last year.

Weiss unexpectedly announced in November that he would oppose the project, acknowledging that his action was prompted in large part by the indictments of a Casden executive and more than a dozen subcontractors on charges that they had conspired to make illegal campaign donations. Weiss had accepted more than $30,000 in donations from Casden associates, but prosecutors said he was not suspected of wrongdoing.

After long remaining publicly neutral on Palazzo Westwood, he urged the developer to revamp the project to suit the community's wishes. Then in February the Planning Commission, faced with strong community opposition, asked Weiss to help the two sides work out their differences. A month of meetings followed.

A few of Weiss' fellow council members congratulated him for the turnaround.

"In any neighborhood, it would have been an incredibly complex task," Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa said.

Given the site's history, that was an understatement.

Nearly a decade ago, developer Ira Smedra encountered fierce opposition to his plan to build Village Center -- a theater, shopping and restaurant complex -- on the site. Although many businesses welcomed the project as a much-needed shot of adrenaline, nearby homeowners complained that it would generate too much traffic. Smedra ended up selling the property to Casden.

Activists said they hoped the parking compromise reached Wednesday would provide an incentive for Westwood merchants to develop a universal parking validation system. Weiss said such a system once existed and needed to be revived.

"I think today we jump-started that effort," said Laura Lake, co-president of Save Westwood Village.

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