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The Rise of the Citizen Activist, Part 3: Sharing and Daring

Posted: Friday, September 1, 2017 – 12:06 PM

By Victoria Talbot

In October 2014, a project came before the Beverly Hills Planning Commission requesting a Hillside R-1 Permit to allow construction of a new single-family home at 1184-1193 Loma Linda Drive with a cumulative floor area exceeding 15,000 square feet and landform alterations exceeding the then-maximum allowed 3,000 cubic yards of exported earth material.

The project, a single-family home with two stories and a basement in 27,334 square feet that would require 7,887 cubic yards of exported soil, would have had a cantilevered deck sporting pools and water features, and multiple retaining walls.

Poised above Coldwater Canyon Park, the massive home would be visible for miles. 

Below, on Sutton Way, neighbors had yet to recover from a slide on the property that had resulted in an unsightly cement retaining feature, holding the hillside at bay.

Above, resident Debbie Weiss could not imagine how such a behemoth could be built on the narrow, winding street, less than 24-feet in width, dwarfing other homes and permanently altering the neighborhood character the area. Where would they stage the project, and where would the crews park in the tiny cul-de-sac? How would the construction vehicles and heavy haul trucks navigate the sharp curves and narrow street? How would the residents access their homes?

The City of Beverly Hills was being lauded for their efforts in the hills of Trousdale, where two accidents involving construction vehicles that lost their brakes took the lives of two LAPD officers, Det. Ernest Allen and Officer Nicholas Lee in the spring of 2014. But the rest of the City’s hillside areas had no such protections, though the hillsides were often just as treacherous.

In the aftermath, the City initiated several measures to achieve “Zero Tolerance” for accidents. Random CHP inspections of vehicles, strict haul routes, hauling hours, weight limits on heavy-haul vehicles and cement trucks, secondary breaking systems, street closures for excessively weighted vehicles, cameras at the entrances to Trousdale, offsite parking for crews and traffic calming measures made Trousdale safer, but did nothing for Loma Linda.

Additionally, as the economy recovered and property values increased, building on property that had previously been deemed “unbuildable” due to prohibitive costs suddenly became doable. Sinking pilings, building multiple retaining walls and excavating were no longer barriers.

What’s more, City planning officials, carrying out their mission to promote development, helped; planning commissioners and City Councilmembers supported the trend. 

Weiss knew nothing about land use, city government or the process of appeal. She knew the applicant was Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini.

As with the residents in Bel-Air, “It was a huge learning curve,” she said.As Weiss struggled to inform herself, and then her neighbors, another group of neighbors were forming in a multi-family neighborhood south of Sunset to oppose the demolition of three apartment buildings on Oakhurst Drive that formed part of what they believe is an historic area. 

The buildings at 332-336 N. Oakhurst Dr. sport green lawns, mature vegetation and an old-Hollywood feel that long-term residents understand as the backdrop of Los Angeles. A potential Historic District, according to historic surveys of the block, the buildings are located partially in Los Angeles and partially in Beverly Hills, also represented home to a group of vulnerable tenants facing Ellis Act evictions.

The Ellis Act is a state law which says that landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to “go out of business.” These evictions are most often used to convert rental units to condominiums, using loopholes in the condo law.

A formal complaint accused the applicant of engaging in irregular conduct towards the tenants, even boarding up the building with tenants still inside, inspiring long-time neighbors to act. 

Furthermore, their research revealed that the buildings were the 1937 work of Edith Mortensen Northman, described by the Los Angeles Times in 1937 as “Los Angeles’ only female architect.” Mortenson had an exceptional career building homes in Los Feliz, Hollywood and Hancock Park for film industry professionals, succeeding during the Depression in a field many men could not sustain.

Robert Block and Steve Mayer were not exactly neophytes as both men had experience in real estate and property issues. But the two-city jurisdictional issues and historic possibilities made the Oakhurst situation entirely unique. 

In February 2015, the Beverly Hills City Council held a special meeting to consider filing an appeal of the City of Los Angeles Advisory Agency Approval of a vesting tentative tract map and adoption of a mitigated negative declaration to allow the construction of the 31-unit condominium project. They denied the appeal, and in doing that, they also ceded authority over the project to the City of Los Angeles. LA would derive the tax benefits but the residents would have all the advantages of Beverly Hills services. Mayer appealed. 

When 196 trees were cut down on Parcels 12 & 13 by the Beverly Hills Land Company in November 2015 on arsenic-laced soil so toxic it was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), residents began calling the City right away. Several of them had attended an earlier meeting with the DTSC that detailed possible plans to mitigate the arsenic-laden parcels. One of the plans, called a Remedial Action Workplan (RAW), would have all the trees removed so that the property owner could mitigate to a depth that would permit habitation on the land. 

However, following the meeting, resident Lionel Ephram examined the DTSC information and noted that the RAW was for parcels in a non-residential area and for land without trees, invalidating the RAW. After the tree-cutting debacle, Ephram reached out to the neighboring residents.

Many of the neighbors who had mobilized over 332-336 N. Oakhurst were already acquainted – with each other and with City officials. As the situation with Parcels 12 & 13 unfolded, including the Courier’s mining of City documents through a Public Information Request that revealed that City officials appeared to have promoted the activities, ignored safety concerns for residents, and attempted to perpetrate misinformation to the public, residents wanted to know who was responsible. 

At the heart of the matter was a plan for the Beverly Hills Land Company to build a mixed-use development on the property that is in a T-Zone, for transportation only. To do so would require a favorable City Council, contributing to a newly-minted distrust of City politics.

North Beverly Hills association president and former City Mayor Robert Tanenbaum and Thomas White, chairman of the Municipal League of Beverly Hills became involved, bringing multi-family residents and single-family homeowners together in the search for accountability.

The ensuing months revealed much about City Hall as they bungled their way through their response to the incident. 

Each wave of response, from City Council events to town hall meetings engaged the residents. 

“What makes our City unique and special is the sense of community and small town family feeling we all have living here,” said Bosse. “There is a pride that is collectively shared… it inspires many to get involved proactively in shaping the future of our City.”

From Oakhurst to Loma Vista, people who had never been engaged before in City government found themselves on the front lines of the battle to preserve their communities.

Slowly, public opinion has shifted, bringing developers and real estate speculators into sharper focus in contrast with a time when realtors sold homes to people who lived in them.

Up on Loma Vista, Weiss mobilized, urging her neighbors to write letters and show up at Planning Commission meetings. For many people, she gave them a voice and words to talk about the impacts such a massive project would have on their neighborhood. Lawn signs proclaimed, “Save Our Neighborhood: Stop Aquilini.”The Loma Linda project galvanized the neighborhood and drew the support of Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association and the Municipal League. Residents who had engaged in the Oakhurst battle and Parcels 12 & 13 brought their support, knowledge and experience.

With so many residents spending so many hours on activism, hiring attorneys, educating themselves and fighting for their neighborhood characters, something shifted. Developers no longer had the element of surprise, the expectation that residents were ignorant of the laws, or that they could get their developments, no matter how outrageous, passed.

“There is no group more knowledgeable nor better suited to understand the needs of a neighborhood than those who live in that neighborhood,” said Vice Mayor Julian Gold. “City councils rely on those residents to help us maintain the integrity of our neighborhoods. Both Loma Vista and Loma Linda are good examples of this.”

Last summer, the Beverly Hills City Council approved the Hillside Development Ordinance as an Urgency Ordinance, meeting the threshold that, “the City Council finds and determines that there is an immediate threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”

The overflow crowd included several attorneys for the Aquilini project, AKA Loma Linda Trust, and a very organized and informed group in opposition to the project who supported the Hillside Ordinance.

Lawyers for the Loma Linda Trust demonstrated a shocking level of unprofessional behavior, catcalling and attempting to personally smear Weiss during the proceedings.

“Our hillside community is particularly well organized by a few citizen activists who are concerned with health and safety issues relating to large-scale developments,” said Planning Commission Chair Lori Greene Gordon. “In the case of the Lago Vista project, these activists brought together a team of resident lawyers, engineers and other professionals that provided compelling testimony to our commission and ultimately helped us reach a unanimous decision to deny the project.”

“It is community activism that created the City of Beverly Hills over 100 years ago, and that fact remains true today,” said Mayor Lili Bosse, referring to then- residents’ refusal to be annexed to the city of Los Angeles. “Our identity will always depend on it.”

The Hillside Ordinance could not stop the developer from bringing the project back, and suing the City for the Urgency Ordinance. A “by right” project that split the property into two houses to stay below the trigger of 1,500 cubic yards of export on each property does not appear to require Planning Commission or City Council review. Taken together, however, Weiss said that the impact is the same, exporting nearly 3,000 cubic yards of soil.

In the pipeline, several projects seeking variances that will impact the hillsides are waiting.

Weiss, Mayer, Block, Tanenbaum and a host of new activists joined residents Anne and Peter Ostroff to oppose a project on Loma Vista Drive. They succeeded, so far.

Ostroff has joined TEAM Beverly Hills, and Block completed the course last year. Next week, Part 4: The Bird Streets





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