In Los Angeles, even small-scale real estate projects can be overwhelmed by the city's complex procedures and bruising politics.
Benjamin Donel, who decided two years ago to expand his business in Highland Park by building a carwash, learned that lesson firsthand.
Donel, the owner of a Shell gas station on Figueroa, figured there wouldn't be too much drama surrounding his project. After all, there was already a carwash on the opposite side of the street, and another at the nearby 76 station immediately to the north.
His next-door neighbors saw things differently. Those residents fought the project, arguing that Donel's plan would create unbearable noise and traffic. And they were not alone.
At least one competing carwash joined the effort, sending employees to testify against Donel's proposal. United Steelworkers Local 675 got involved, saying it threatened the livelihoods of unionized employees at Highland Car Wash across the street. Other influential voices chimed in, including Gustavo Valdivia, a City Hall lobbyist who works nearby.
The East Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, whose members were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, recently rejected the new enterprise on a 3-2 vote. "We felt the developer gave inaccurate information about how loud this was going to be," President Christopher Arellano said.
Donel, 39, is now planning to sue the city. His attorney, Tim McOsker, said the situation illustrates how steep the barriers are to businesses in L.A. "What [the opponents] were saying is 'We're a good union carwash, and you cannot put in another business that might compete with us,'" McOsker said.
Rob Glushon, a land-use lawyer who worked pro bono for the carwash opponents, had a sharply different take, saying approval of the project would have been an "egregious" violation of state environmental law.
"Definitely there were potential noise impacts from a carwash, with blowers and machinery and vehicles that were going to be 10, 15 feet way from people's windows," Glushon said.
Donel, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1985, is no stranger to the workings of local government. Two years ago, a planning commission in La Mirada approved his request for a carwash on Rosecrans Avenue. A few months later, the city of Covina backed his application for one next to a Mobil station. In each case, the fees were less than $5,000, Donel said.
Los Angeles turned out to be much more complicated.
Donel said he has spent about $27,000 on his carwash application, a figure that undoubtedly will grow if he pursues a legal case. He attended three lengthy planning commission meetings over six months.
Part of the reason for Donel's difficult path had to do with the neighborhood: Because Highland Park is in a historic zone, Donel faced additional procedural hurdles. The Highland Park project was also much closer to homes than in La Mirada or Covina, raising more issues about the effects on the neighbors.
City planning officials recommended approval of the carwash, saying it complied with the zoning rules. Highland Park's preservation board also signed off. But the neighborhood council opposed it; its president said the project would increase traffic and draw customers away from the union carwash.
Hoping to reassure neighbors, Donel produced studies on traffic and noise, both of which said his carwash would not have a major negative effect. But two experts disputed those findings, saying the noise would be significant. One was consultant Brian Hobin, a distributor of carwash equipment who, like Glushon, said he was providing his expertise to the neighbors free of charge. He called Donel's project "irresponsible."
Hobin told The Times he installed carwash equipment for the 76 station next door. He declined to say whether the 76 station's owner had spoken with him about testifying against Donel's project. "I can't give you a yes or a no on that," he said.
The campaign against the carwash circulated a video in which resident Mercedes Vasquez, who filed the challenge to the carwash, urged Councilman Gil Cedillo to come out against it. Vasquez, who lives next door to Donel's gas station, said the extra noise would disturb her elderly husband, who suffers from Parkinson's and dementia.
Foes also gathered petitions with 75 pages of signatures; Donel said he spotted one on the counter at the nearby 76 station. "When people came in, they asked customers to sign," he said.
Opponents formed a broad coalition — residents, businesses and labor — to stop Donel's project, said Manuel Ramirez, a field representative with the steelworkers. A key player, he said, was the Clean Carwash campaign, an offshoot of the union and the national AFL-CIO, which focuses on unionizing carwashes.
"The Clean Carwash campaign was directly involved with helping Highland Car Wash keep the Shell express car wash from opening," Ramirez said.
The commission first voted to oppose the carwash in November.
At the time, Arellano questioned the wisdom of having three carwashes at the same intersection or allowing such a project during a drought. He also voiced sympathy for the families who would have to live near it. "I think it's going to be loud. I think it's going to be dirty. And I think it's just not smart planning," he said.
Weeks later, Cedillo persuaded his council colleagues to veto the decision, sending it back to the planning commission for more work. A planning aide to Cedillo said the commissioners hadn't made the proper findings to back up their decision.
Garcetti's appointees took up the case again three weeks ago. This time, the city's lawyer carefully walked them through the wording needed to reject the project. The carwash was turned down again. Before the vote, Arellano recommended that Donel prepare an environmental impact report examining the carwash effects on the community.
Glushon said Cedillo's actions ultimately benefited his clients, by ensuring the commission's rejection of the carwash would hold up in court. Cedillo, for his part, declined to comment on the panel's decision, saying that he would not seek to have it overturned.
That news disappointed Donel, who had hoped Cedillo would intervene. "If you can't turn to your councilman … who do you turn to?" he said.