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The Rise Of The Citizen Activist In Mega-Mansion Development: Part 1

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2017 – 2:21 PM

By Victoria Talbot

The Los Angeles landscape has undergone many shifts from its early beginnings, from oil wells to luxury hotels, railroads to automobiles. In the early Twentieth Century, hunting cabins dotted the canyons, and the orange groves spread through the valley.

Post WWII brought the GI Bill and developers enticed homebuyers with ebullient advertising campaigns and cheap land. Mulholland solved the water problem and motion pictures brought glamour and studios.

Often considered a city without a history, Los Angelenos disagree, and for lifers who know these hills, canyons and valleys, the current crop of developers crossed an invisible line in the sand.

Ridgelines are a sacred LA image, the beloved collective public image that defines Los Angeles, and are being swept away by bulldozers and replaced with mega mansions made of steel and glass that dominate the view shed. Every 90-degree square foot of developable hillside land is being claimed by developers who feel entitled to make as much from their stake of a once-overlooked sub-standard postage stamp “lot” as they can squeeze out of it, neighbors be damned.

Throughout the hillsides, and into the flats, neighborhoods are being invaded by a titanic sweep of heavy-haul vehicles altering the natural contours of the terrain forever, driving away the precious wildlife and removing forever the natural flora and fauna that made these hills their home.

How it happened was perhaps a confluence of interests and circumstances, some right-minded city planners with some good intentions that had disastrous unintended consequences when coupled with the mortgage crisis and the drop in real estate prices.

As the prices rebounded, savvy developers paired with wily realtors to discover the loopholes that would lead them around the 2011 Hillside Ordinance, which restricted the height of a home to two stories, with no restrictions on “the basement.” But square feet translate to dollars, and as the economic recovery strengthened, pent-up demand began driving the value of property higher. Savvy developers jumped on the bandwagon, and soon, the hills were alive with construction.

In Bel Air, residents experienced something like a war zone, with haul trucks queued 40-deep up Stone Canyon and into the small, substandard winding streets, battling residents for safe passage.

The real wake-up call was when two LAPD officers were killed on a steep and winding stretch of Loma Vista Drive.

“The drivers threatened the residents,” said Marcia Hobbs, co-founder of the Bel Air Alliance, an organization founded by residents who could not access their homes or exit their driveways because of the number of trucks crisscrossing the streets. Truckers barely slowed in intersections; close calls prevailed. One resident had her car flipped over by a speeding haul vehicle.

In Beverly Hills, the newly rediscovered charm of the Mid-Century Modern mecca of Trousdale attracted a new breed of maverick developer, unleashing a siege of developers.

Officials only began to take notice of the safety hazards and danger to residents after tragedy struck twice.

LAPD Officer Nicholas Lee was killed March 7, 2014 when his patrol vehicle was struck in the Doheny intersection by a construction vehicle hauling heavy equipment that lost its brakes. Detective Ernest Allen, Sr. was killed May 2, just weeks later, when his private vehicle was struck by a full cement mixer that had lost its brakes and collided with Allen’s small truck before hitting a tree. The cement mixer drove up the trunk of the tree and fell backwards onto Allen’s truck, striking it a second time, where it came to rest.

Both officers were killed by runaway construction vehicles, and construction in the Trousdale area immediately came to a grinding halt while the City examined the problem. What came to light were numerous fatalities over the years, and a pressing need to increase public safety.

At the same time, the Beverly Hills Community Development Department and City Hall were responsible for approving a project that has become the poster child for bad development. The 11,200-square foot home at 1201 Laurel Way is a horrible example of poor development, boasting a series of cascading, ugly retaining walls visible for miles, whose only purpose was to achieve the requisite amount of “level pad” to expand the floor area to create a $31 million home on the property.

Elsewhere, developers were coming from Canada to stake out their retirement by maxing out the square footage to make the numbers pencil out in prestigious Beverly Hills.

Developers and realtors were aiming for that eight-figure killing in pricey Los Angeles to put their names on the map associated with terms like “the most expensive” and “luxury properties” and the word was out that in LA this was “a go.” City Hall was lenient and ready to hand out permits.

But after the accidents in Trousdale, the impact of construction could not be ignored. The first wave of pushback came in the form of curbing heavy-haul vehicles in the hillsides and instituting traffic controls to make the streets safer.

The City Council, Community Development, BHPD and the CHP combined with engineering firm Fehrs & Peers to create a “Zero Tolerance” plan for safety, including random truck inspections, permitting, mandatory reviews, specified hauling routes and hours, reduced truck sizes, mandatory double-breaking systems and traffic calming measures.

Meanwhile, Bel-Air became Ground Zero in the battle between residents and developers in the wake of Loma Vista, galvanizing residents as developers continued to take advantage of the absence of regulations in hauling, excavation and cement mixers on their narrow, winding streets.

One project, 85,154 square feet, called for hauling 39,805 cubic yards of soil. In one case, 46 heavy haul vehicles staged on Stone Canyon illegally. Residents began filming violations, with trucks arriving at construction sites at 5:30 a.m., and the City of Los Angeles did nothing.

It was too much to ignore, and residents could no longer tolerate the abuses.

“Developers can violate conditions without consequences,” said Fred Rosen, former CEO of Ticketmaster, and president of the newly-formed Bel Air Alliance.

Next week: Bel-Air Residents Fight Back

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