Posted: Friday, September 15, 2017 – 11:16 AM
By Victoria Talbot
Crest Real Estate burst on the scene as the housing boom escalated. The very young company president and founder Jason Somers seemed a poor fit for the type of sophisticated, wealthy clients he typically represents.
Despite the disconnect, he is remarkably effective. Crest has represented over 500 projects, according to his website, most of them in the lucrative hills above Los Angeles. His website map shows the intense concentration of Crest’s hillside projects, from Bel-Air to Laurel Canyon.
Crest surfaced a few years ago in Bel-Air, representing an immense project on Airole Way. Soon, he surfaced in Beverly Hills, drawing concern among residents for the sheer audacity of his projects.
But he has more recently become a major factor in the hills above Sunset, called the Bird Streets for their many avian names.
“What Crest did was literally seize on a community without a neighborhood association,” said one source. “They [those communities] were getting stomped on because of a vacuum in community leadership.”
“Crest was successfully able to get countless projects entitled that probably would not have gone through if there had been a neighborhood association,” said one land use expert.
Expediters typically act as intermediaries representing a client to shepherd a project through the permitting process. “They’ll tell you the truth, good or bad,” said a source. “They fill out forms and talk to commissioners and permitting agencies… But Jason and his team will massage the truth, paint their projects to be nearly perfect, when in truth…”
Said one LA City insider, “When his face shows up on a project in the city, the glasses go on and pencils get sharpened. Everyone assumes there will be something.”
Many expediters are, in fact, former City employees who are familiar with permitting, and whose regulatory knowledge is matched by their personal relationships with former co-workers.
The number of new home developments in process clearly shows the home “remodel” has been largely replaced by developers who demolish and redevelop. Values have skyrocketed, and “luxury” branding demands that bigger is better. Razing multi-million dollar homes has become a Los Angeles pastime; and building to the maximum allowable and beyond has become sport.
Facilitators fall into three broad categories, lawyers, lobbyists and expeditors, but the lines can blur considerably. Land-use attorneys are skilled in areas of the law that go far beyond permitting. Lobbyists are paid to represent their clients to influence decisions on behalf of a project. Expediters obtain permits, which can be a costly and time-consuming process.
According to their website, Crest’s services go beyond expediting.
For example, Crest creates a “Property Development Analysis” to “provide a strategic game plan for governmental submittals and plan preparation.” They prepare “expert presentations” for projects seeking discretionary approvals for entitlements and discretionary hearings and provide “accelerated permitting timelines,” using their “relationships with city officials… “Through a direct line of contact with the city, Crest is able to influence priority processing.”
Crest will act as “project manager by identifying project needs, selecting consultants and contractors, preparing schedules and budgets, and seeing that they are complied with through oversight of the team, while interfacing with the community, governmental agencies and client’s legal counsel.”
“We are not a realty/brokerage company,” wrote Somers, who is on his honeymoon. He was responding to a request for comment on the problems associated with projects he represents in the hills above Sunset.
“We are not developers of these projects. We have zero ownership interest in any of these projects. We are hired on projects already planned for development… Crest is an expediting company that helps obtain permits.”
The query elicited a 750-word response that mimics a chess game that has not yet been played except in the imagination. Such is Jason Somers.
According to Somers: “Projects that we are involved in would occur with or without Crest being hired. The projects are fully within the code and go through the entire required city permitting process. Our clients won properties and intend to build the fully legal projects that the architect designs for them, whether it be for sale or for their own family use. Therefore, once the project is in construction, we are not involved…”
According to his website, “Crest’s involvement begins at different stages throughout the development timeline, but sees the most value added to a project when involved from the conceptual phase through the final inspection sign-off.”
You can’t have it both ways. Somers may have fans among his clients, but he has burned many bridges, as well, it seems.
Debbie Weiss, who has taken on the mantel of “activist” since fighting against planned developments on her narrow, winding street in Beverly Hills, expressed concerns echoed throughout Bel-Air and in the hills above the Sunset Strip, as well.
“He initially approached us under the guise of helping… When someone is looking to work with you, they come to you before the plans are set… What Jason does is come to you after and attempts to invalidate your concerns,” said Weiss.
Residents throughout the hillsides complained that Somers’ more controversial projects are often scheduled for hearings inconveniently, to minimize public opposition.
“Crest informed neighbors of the hearing with only 24-hours’ notice,” said one resident. “Only one neighbor could turn out to object.” The source pointed out numerous occasions when hearings were scheduled on or near holidays. Haul route hearing signs were concealed beneath vegetation – not on one project, but routinely.
Continued Weiss, “Often, information supplied is misleading and masks the true impacts. We have noticed a pattern.” In Beverly Hills on 1260 Lago Vista, Weiss wrote, “The story Mr. Somers spun about the project unraveled,” during the hearing. “The veracity of the project’s traffic management plan, excavation and hauling numbers, and basement calculation all fell apart under scrutiny. The true scale and impacts of the project had been vastly understated and once the true impacts of the project were revealed, the project was denied 5-0.”
According to Somers, Crest has “supported many recent code changes and regulations that have assisted in making future homes smaller and implementing construction mitigation measures on every single haul route in the hillside area of Los Angeles.”
In fact, in January Somers and his partner Anthony Russo were cited by Los Angeles for “violations of mandatory reporting requirements of the city’s Municipal Lobbying Ordinance. Crest Real Estate and two of its lobbyists, Jason Somers and Anthony Russo… were fined $15,000 for failing to register as a lobbying entity and failing to disclose city lobbying activity,” said a press release from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, dated Feb. 22, 2017.
“It can certainly be argued that because Crest is involved in so many projects, it has actually had a positive impact on construction mitigation measures by implementing new regulations as Conditions of Approval in the permitting process of many projects which would not otherwise be in place,” wrote Somers.
His website again, “Crest offers permitting and development services that maximize efficiencies and increase profits for a variety of real estate endeavors. Through its involvement in hundreds of successful projects, Crest has a comprehensive understanding of the keys to prosperous development …”
It could be argued however, that because of Crest’s involvement, residents were forced into organizing to push for regulations to bring development under control, an indirect result of Crest’s involvement. Crest and its projects, said one source, was the catalyst for the Bel-Air Interim Control Ordinance. In Beverly Hills, Crest projects were behind the recent clarification of the definition of “basement,” which is leading to a rewrite of the basement ordinance for the City, scheduled prior to the end of the year.
“The causes of concern for residents are the impacts that are a direct result of these projects being simply too large for the pieces of property they are on. If the tragic deaths on Loma Vista Drive have taught us anything, it is the need for these projects to be a responsible size,” wrote Weiss. “It cannot be emphasized enough that Jason is playing games with people’s lives.”
Somers, who has 12 projects in the Doheny Estates area alone, took the unusual step of hiring a security patrol to “drive around the Hollywood Hills to monitor any construction violations on all projects,” he wrote.
Somers can point to the patrol as “evidence” of Crest’s “commitment to security”, but the community reports there is no improvement in enforcement.
Said one resident in response, “We have a real enforcement issue up here. The best way to resolve that would involve a greater commitment on the part of law enforcement and a greater commitment by developers and contractors to follow the rules.”
In 2013, Somers was featured in an article in The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Somers, whose firm charges around $175 per hour depending on the specialization, estimates that he was able to increase the size of the home by 2,000 square feet.”
The article probably unintentionally kick-started his career, which began when he was a sophomore at UCLA and worked for family friends at Pacific Crest Consultants. A few years later he started Crest Real Estate.
The Doheny Sunset Plaza Neighborhood Association offered this: “Leaving aside the question of whether these structures belong in the hills, the problem with expediters in general is that they can make promises about how the process of construction will be for neighbors and how law-abiding and considerate a given contractor will be, but when the time comes for building, they really have very little impact on the behavior of the contractor. When neighbors see violation after violation, and contractors who completely ignore the “good neighbor standards” and whatever else they may have assured the expediter they would do, these promises come to be empty, and with good reason.”
A motion put forth by 4th District Councilman David Ryu to present a Zone Change Ordinance to apply the Hillside Construction Regulations (HCR) that exists in Bel-Air to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood and the Bird Streets neighborhood.
The Los Angeles Planning Department will hold a public hearing for the HCR Sept. 27. According to Ryu’s Director of Communications, Estevan Montemayor, “it appears substantive changes are wanted which could delay the approval and implementation of the ordinance.”
The changes are haul route conditions for cement trucks, and further safety and enforcement mitigations, which would close some of the holes in the Bel-Air ordinance.
Residents regard construction traffic fearfully, especially cement trucks in the area, which are not limited in size, even on streets that measure less than 14 feet across.
In early 2015, while Los Angeles was considering the proposed Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) enacted in Bel Air, Somers held a meeting with land use attorney Ben Resnik and a coalition of over 100 developers who opposed the ICO. They invited CD5 Councilman Paul Koretz to send his Planning Deputy, who was heavily ambushed. Koretz, working with the Bel-Air community, had been responsible for bringing the ICO forward.
Sources say that Somers had hired two lobbyists, in addition to Resnik, to fight the ICO.
As one land use expert put it, “Picture a strip mall; all the same steel and concrete are in one of these homes; 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 square feet, just like a strip mall. Now picture four or five of them on one tiny street…”
Somers has largely moved his operation out of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills; his involvement is primarily in the Bird Streets, though he has projects everywhere.
Ryu’s planning deputy, Julia Duncan, has toured the area with Doheny Sunset Plaza Neighborhood Association president Ellen Evans, and his office is concerned with traffic safety violations and enforcement, which is complaint-driven.
As one resident put it, however, the poor enforcement enlists weary homeowners as vigilantes, causing friction between neighbors and construction personnel, with construction personnel sometimes threatening residents and often ignoring them.
In addition, LA Building and Safety, charged with enforcement, regards developers as their “customers.” Their funding is generated by developers, not the General Fund.
The fox is guarding the hen house.
A haul-route capping system, designed to limit hauling traffic, was meant to help. Residents say, however, that it is poorly enforced, and that it has the unintended consequence of suppressing public comments by relieving commissioners from considering other potential problems and their mitigations in light of the cap. Ryu’s office feels that this capping system, with the Baseline Hillside Ordinance and the anticipated adoption of a Hillside Construction Regulation zone, “will have a significant positive impact.”
“We are glad they are aware of our issues, and we look forward to continuing to work with them to improve our neighborhood,” said Stella Jeong of the Doheny Sunset Plaza Neighborhood Association.
Next week, Part 6: Projects and Streets