With its unusual angles and stripes of white concrete and smoked glass, the Wilshire Bundy Plaza makes a stark contrast to the green Santa Monica Mountains that lie to the north. The 14-story office building has become a distinct part of the Brentwood skyline since it was completed last spring.
But Susana Nierlich said she cringes at the thought of the building, which towers over her home four blocks away.
The Plaza was built on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, at the corner of Bundy Drive, that was supposed to be limited to buildings of three stories and less. Nierlich was one of many Brentwood residents who worked exhaustively on the Brentwood-Pacific Palisades District Plan, partly to keep high-rise offices such as the Plaza out of the neighborhood. When the Los Angeles City Council approved the plan in 1977, it included a three-story limit on portions of Wilshire.
But three years later Murdock Development Co. of Westwood secured a permit to build the Plaza at nearly five times that height, because the city failed to rezone the property to coincide with the plan.
"I have a terrible sense of loss every time I look at it," Nierlich said. "It is like grieving someone's death. It has totally changed the backdrop to our community."
The story of the Plaza is not an unusual one on the Westside or throughout the rest of Los Angeles, where zoning on one-quarter of the 800,000 parcels fails to conform with the more recent and more restrictive community plans. The result has been the construction of scores of office buildings, apartment complexes and other projects that are many times larger than the recommended size.
By their own admission, city officials have made little progress in complying with a state law that said the city had to redraw zoning maps to agree with the community plans. The deadline for completing the task passed 2 1/2 years ago.
A coalition of 42 homeowner associations from the Westside and San Fernando Valley filed suit last month to stop the city from issuing building permits until the new maps have been drawn. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled last Monday that the city must bring the zoning into line within 120 days.
The City Council is expected to decide Wednesday how it plans to resolve the problem.
Community plans were drawn in the 1970s for 35 sections of the city. They are based on a theoretical city population of 4 million and were completed after long hours of hearings involving city planners, developers and neighborhood groups.
But on 200,000 parcels, zoning limits have not been changed to agree with the plans. The zoning on those parcels remains at the level recommended in 1946, when city planners anticipated a population of 10 million.
Nierlich, a former member of the Brentwood Community Federation, took part in the hearings that resulted in the 1977 Brentwood-Pacific Palisades District Plan. She realized, however, that the community needed zoning changes to put teeth into the plan.
"We really pressed to have the plan implemented (with zoning)," Nierlich said. "But the plan has to be interpreted and talked about and further decisions have to be made."
While city officials talked, Murdock Development secured a building permit for the Wilshire Bundy Plaza. A building moratorium for the area was proposed by City Councilman Marvin Braude but the developer was able to get its permit under the old zoning, according to Ron Douglas, a spokesman for Murdock.
Not far from the Plaza are other examples of what happens when zoning does not conform to community plans.
The 26-story World Savings building at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards would have been limited to less than half its density if the Brentwood-Pacific Palisades plan had been enforced with proper zoning. The community plan called for a floor-to-area ratio on the lot of 6-1, but the zoning allowed the building to be constructed at a ratio of 13-1, which is equivalent to most of the major buildings downtown.
On Olympic Boulevard near the intersection of Bundy in West Los Angeles, Westside Associates is building the Westside Towers, two adjoining 12-story brick offices. The towers' density is 67% greater than recommended in the West Los Angeles District Plan, but they are in agreement with zoning. They are scheduled for completion in June.
Similar discrepancies have also allowed apartments and condominiums in areas such as Kings Road near West Hollywood that were designated in plans for single-family homes, according to city planner Don Taylor.
"The community would scream," Taylor said, "because they said they thought they were protected by the community plan. But we weren't as quick as we could have been in rolling back the zoning."
Homeowners have been dismayed by the ease with which developers are able to go against the plans.
If the zoning allows it, builders can get a permit for an office high-rise as easily as a homeowner who wants to remodel his kitchen, Taylor said. Public hearings need not be held.
Zoning has been redrawn for the entire Brentwood-Pacific Palisades area, according to Dan Green, the city planner leading the city's campaign to eliminate the zoning discrepancies. But zoning for an uncounted number of other parcels on the Westside must still be corrected. The problem is particularly prevalent in Hollywood but has gone unnoticed thus far because the area is not popular with developers, Green said.
In the absence of a comprehensive plan for rewriting the city's zoning law, piecemeal corrections have been made. Westside councilmen Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky have initiated height and density limits along many thoroughfares in their districts, according to Taylor.
To buy time the councilmen have also proposed temporary moratoriums on construction. The City Council approved such a measure for the Westwood Village in December.
The effect has been that the council jumps from one neighborhood to the next in an attempt to stop projects that exceed the community plans. But developers, planners and neighborhood activists agree that the enactment of moratoriums often has the opposite effect, causing builders to launch developments before more restrictive zoning closes the door.
Wilshire Bundy Plaza and scores of other projects have been approved just in time to avoid building bans, planners said.
City officials have asked that they be given three years to rezone the 200,000 nonconforming parcels. In the meantime, planners have proposed a moratorium for the entire city on buildings that exceed the limits established in the plans.
"In other words, if you don't conform with the plan, you don't build," said planner Green. "It would take care of the intent of what they (community groups) are after, but it does not meet the letter of the law. Whether that would meet the judge's ruling or not, I'm not sure."
The city wants to proceed with the zoning changes gradually so that it can consider each area in detail, Green said. Otherwise, community plans that are almost as outdated as the zoning limits will be enforced, he said.
The City Council is expected to consider the moratorium and other solutions to the problem at its meeting Wednesday.
The council's planning and environment committee recommended last Tuesday that the city pass a law prohibiting construction that exceeds the limits imposed in community plans. Such a law would meet the spirit of the judge's ruling, officials in the city attorney's office said.
But to meet the letter of the law, the council committee proposed a three-year program to redraw zoning maps.
To speed the job, the committee also recommended:
- Conducting one public hearing in each plan area, instead of the 10 or more that were held in the past.
- Dropping environmental impact reports for each of the zone changes. The city is expected to ask state officials to waive the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires the reports.
- Creating an eight-member planning team, at a cost of $100,000 a year, to work solely on rezoning.
Without the improvements, zone changes might not be completed for 10 years, Green said. To avoid the problem in the future, the committee recommended that community plans and zoning maps be rewritten simultaneously.