L.A. panel OKs Academy Museum, but objections are heard

Unlike Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," planners and backers of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will be delighted if Wednesday is a repeat of Tuesday.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received a thumbs-up for its $300-million museum from the Los Angeles City Council's planning and land use management committee in a hearing Tuesday afternoon at City Hall. The full City Council is scheduled to vote on final approval at its meeting Wednesday morning.

At the meeting Tuesday, the committee's chairman, Councilman Jose Huizar, presided alone because the two other members were absent. At the end of the 45-minute hearing, Huizar said he will support the project and recommend it to his 14 fellow Council members. If approved, the academy could begin construction this summer; it aims to open the museum by the end of 2017. Bill Kramer, managing director of the Academy Museum project, said that about $250 million in cash and pledges has come in.

The Academy Museum would occupy a vacant former department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, at the western end of the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA is leasing the building and adjoining land to the academy for $36.1 million, with all the payments already made upfront for a 55-year lease that the academy can double at no additional cost.

But not all new developments were rosy for the academy. A lawyer for Fix the City, a nonprofit L.A. activist group that has vowed to sue to stop the project, sent a scathing email to the planning and land use committee Tuesday, accusing city officials of ramrodding the film museum through without enough analysis and discussion of its effect on traffic and parking in the Miracle Mile.

Fix the City's vice president, James O'Sullivan, said during the hearing that the process has many concerned.

"Rules matter," said O'Sullivan, who's also president of the Miracle Mile Residential Assn. "The law matters, even for museums."

Fix the City is a potentially muscular adversary with a track record that includes a 2013 victory over the city in a lawsuit that overturned zoning changes for development in Hollywood. O'Sullivan said that Beverly Grossman Palmer, the attorney who fired off the letter to Huizar's committee Tuesday, also handled the Hollywood case.

O'Sullivan had a few allies among more than 30 speakers at the hearing. Most favored the project, which is led by Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the museum and who is stepping down next week because of term limits. O'Sullivan said in an interview that the review of the museum plan should be slowed to give LaBonge's successor, David Ryu, a chance to weigh in.

Some neighbors are concerned because plans call for the film museum to share the existing LACMA lots, with no additional parking of its own. The academy has responded by securing leases for about 800 parking spaces in neighboring garages, including the Petersen Automotive Museum across Wilshire. Kramer said that would be enough to handle the overflow on days when the museum hits its estimated peak attendance of 5,000.

Representatives of the Beverly Wilshire Homeowners Assn. and the Mid City West Community Council joined the Miracle Mile Residential Assn. in opposing the museum. The groups said they would support the project if not for its domed cinema, which they fear will clog streets for movie premieres and other events. But a residents' association for a condo development across Fairfax Avenue voiced support, as did the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce.

Kramer, the project director, said talks with O'Sullivan aimed at deterring a lawsuit have been "productive, and I'm hopeful."

But O'Sullivan said after the hearing, "I'm not optimistic."

The email from the attorney for Fix the City complained that there has been no time to sift through an 828-page document submitted by the Academy Museum and dated June 11. It detailed changes to the plans that the Los Angeles City Planning Commission had approved in May.

"This project has departed so far from accepted standards [as] to constitute a violation of my clients' and the public's right to due process," Palmer wrote. "The speed with which this case is progressing casts significant doubt whether the council members could possibly review the committee's finding prior to their vote."

But the gist of the changes is contained in the first seven pages of the tome, academy attorney William Delvac told Huizar.

Among the changes:

• Scheduling film screenings as early as 10 a.m., instead of the 2 p.m. starting time previously envisioned. Kramer said the early shows would be "kid-friendly films."

• Keeping the museum cafe open until 11 p.m. instead of shutting it down at the museum's 6 p.m. closing time on most days.

• Enlarging the cafe by 50% to 6,000 square feet. To expand the restaurant, the nearby museum store would be reduced to 3,000 square feet from 5,000 square feet.

• Adding outdoor terraces to the "view deck" that tops the domed cinema known as the Sphere. The earlier plan had kept the view deck fully enclosed. Kramer said the openings are for air circulation and will be too small for people to congregate outside and bother neighbors with noise.

To minimize traffic, the Academy Museum is promising a "parking and transportation management plan" that would include coordinating with LACMA to make sure both museums don't have major events on the same days. Personnel would direct traffic during peak hours and special events.

The academy's traffic projections estimate that 1,635 vehicles would come and go to the museum on peak days when attendance swells to 5,000, but the vehicle count would be half that on most days. The museum projects annual attendance of about 860,000.

The museum's traffic study predicts that one out of every five visitors will take in both the film museum and LACMA on the same day, reducing the strain on the shared parking lots.

The revised traffic projections received an endorsement from the city's Department of Transportation, which found that, despite "a slight increase" in morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic to and from the museum because of the earlier film screenings and larger restaurant, "the change in the project's scope would not result in any new significant impacts" beyond what the planning commission and the transportation department already had approved.

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