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Condo Plan Riles Grove Area

Builder wants out of a 1993 obligation to erect senior housing near the center. Residents decry the move and worry about increased traffic.

April 29, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Developer Alan Casden is asking the city to change zoning rules so he can build 300 condos directly across the street from the Grove shopping center, a move criticized by neighborhood groups as a back-door maneuver that they fear will worsen the area's already extreme traffic congestion.

The zone change that Casden Properties is seeking would allow the developer to get out of a 1993 agreement to build a less dense senior care center on land now occupied by an aging Ross Dress for Less store, which was hit by a methane gas explosion in March 1985. The parcel is on the southeast corner of 3rd Street and Ogden Drive.

The area has seen a development boom in the last five years, not only with the opening of the popular Grove but also with Casden's construction of more than 1,300 mid-rise luxury apartment units along 3rd Street.

Traffic officials describe the area around the Grove and the Beverly Center mall, about 15 blocks to the west, as among the city's most clogged. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has said it soon plans to begin a new effort to improve traffic flow.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 96 words Type of Material: Correction
Casden condos: A story in Saturday's California section about plans by developer Alan Casden to build 300 condos across the street from the Grove shopping center near 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue gave an incorrect size for a shopping center expansion that would have been allowed under a 1998 zoning change passed by the City Council. Instead of an expansion of 117,000 square feet, the change would have permitted an expansion of about 23,300 square feet beyond the existing 93,670-square-foot center, for a total of about 117,000 square feet. Casden chose not to build the expansion.

Local residents and the principal of Hancock Park Elementary School, which is across Ogden from the Ross site, have spoken out strongly against the proposed zoning shift. They contend that the plan to build 300 condos would increase traffic and parking problems and deprive residents of needed senior housing.

The 1993 agreement called for 216 units for seniors, including 43 reserved for low-income residents. However, Ellen Berkowitz, an outside attorney for Casden, said the City Council altered the zoning for the parcel in March 1998 to permit a 117,000-square-foot expansion of the existing shopping center in which Ross was located, with no senior housing. The commercial center was not built. Instead, Casden erected the Palazzo apartments along 3rd.

By choosing the "residential alternative," Berkowitz said, Casden still faced the obligation to build the senior housing. That's why he is seeking the zoning change.

The Mid-City West Community Council, the local neighborhood council, has asked the city to deny Casden's application. In heated meetings in recent weeks, residents complained to Casden representatives and to Councilman Tom LaBonge's staff that altered zoning would reduce the amount of required open space, eliminate short-term parking at Ross for school employees and parents, and increase the height of the project.

James O'Sullivan, chairman of the community council, said Casden Properties failed to notify the council through normal channels of its plan to seek a zoning change. Instead, he said, he heard about it from a contact at Farmers Market who happened to see a flier. Similarly, notice went to Hancock Park Elementary during the school's winter break.

"It sort of slipped in," he said.

Under the 1993 development agreement, Casden was able to build 1,381 market-rate apartment units along 3rd without having to go through public hearings or receive community input.

"Having built all of the market-rate housing permitted under the agreement, Casden now seeks to avoid the obligation to provide much-needed senior housing or any affordable housing," the Mid-City West Community Council said in a letter to the city. "It simply is not good zoning practice to allow a developer to reap the benefit of its bargain and then escape the burdens it voluntarily incurred to obtain those benefits."

Judy Perez, Hancock Park Elementary's principal, said she had deep concerns about the condo proposal, which was first reported in the Los Angeles Independent, a weekly newspaper.

"We have a desperate situation with traffic and parking around here," she said. "When our parents come to drop off children in the morning, it is a traffic jam."

Casden Properties contends that the development agreement, which it inherited when it bought three parcels from Park La Brea, did not actually require the company to erect senior housing.

Rather, the agreement was a comprehensive zoning plan for four different parcels within the neighborhood that laid out a variety of possible scenarios, the firm says. A huge office complex and a hotel were other prospective projects that have not been built.

Casden Properties has told the city Planning Department that it would like to postpone hearings on the zoning request so it can consider how to satisfy the community's concerns, Berkowitz said.

"We heard the community loud and clear," she said. "We want to take the time to work with the community and Hancock Park Elementary School to come up with a project that hopefully addresses their concerns."

LaBonge, who represents the area, has not yet taken a position.

Casden is regarded as a feisty, contentious developer who wages long battles over projects with community residents and merchants. He is known for having extensive political connections.

In November 2003, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley filed felony charges against a vice president at Casden Properties, accusing him of trying to get around campaign finance limits by soliciting donations from friends and relatives of subcontractors and then illegally reimbursing them. A year later, the vice president and 14 subcontractors pleaded no contest and were sentenced to three years' probation for the misdemeanor convictions.

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