Foes Lose Round to Builders in Echo Park Area

Times Staff Writer

The developers of two controversial apartment complexes in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area have the right to retain their building permits even though their projects violate the size limitations of the community plan, the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission ruled Tuesday.

Despite arguments from some neighborhood residents, the five commissioners unanimously agreed that so much work had been done and so many liabilities have been incurred at both the 107-unit complex under construction on Marathon Street and the 45-unit project on Morton Avenue that the city could not revoke the permits.

The ruling means, officials said, that developer Chong Lee can immediately resume construction at 3630 Marathon St., on a steep hillside site across the street from Bellevue Park.

However, the commissioners said that Morton Park Associates should not resume work at 1850 Morton Ave. near the intersection of Echo Park Avenue until the Board of Zoning Appeals hears arguments from neighboring homeowners that a building permit should not have been issued for that complex in the first place. The hearing is scheduled for March 19.

Residents near both construction sites complained that the proposed projects are far too large for the narrow, hilly streets and that the neighborhoods will be clogged with traffic if the number of apartments is not reduced. They also charged that the developers knew that a moratorium was about to be adopted on any projects conflicting with the community plan and that the builders purposely speeded up construction in hope of winning hardship exemptions.

In both cases, stop-work orders were issued by the city after such moratoriums were adopted, in November for the 4th Councilmanic District and in December for the 13th District. Both districts cover parts of Silver Lake and Echo Park.

Both developers applied for exemptions, claiming that they had accrued so many "vested rights" in construction and financial liabilities that the city should restore the permits. The staff of the city Building and Safety Department agreed with the developers and decided that construction should be allowed to start again. However, neighborhood groups appealed to the commission last month to reverse the staff ruling.

The moratoriums are designed to give city planners time to come up with lot-by-lot zoning to conform with the community plan as required by state law. The plan is much more restrictive than current zoning and forbids large apartment houses in much of Silver Lake and Echo Park. If the guidelines of the community plan were followed, Lee could build only 35 units on his Marathon Street site and Morton Park Associates could build only 12 units on its Morton Avenue property.

Having lost Tuesday at the commission, the group of community organizations fighting the Marathon Street project said it may take its case to court. According to city attorneys, the commission cannot be overruled by the City Council.

'Keep Fighting'

The Morton Avenue residents said they are pinning their hopes now on the Zoning Appeals Board. Susan Nelson, one of the leaders of the Elysian Heights Residents Assn., said of the Tuesday ruling: "Yes, it was a loss, but at least we got a stay for two weeks. Now we have to stay organized and keep fighting."

In both cases, commission President Marcia Marcus stressed that the decision was to be based on narrow grounds: Whether the builders had vested rights and whether they had acted on the permits with good faith. Matters of zoning, aesthetics, traffic and property values are out of the commission's jurisdiction, she said.

Nevertheless, those issues were prominent in the debates Tuesday in the commission hearing room at City Hall.

In the Morton Avenue hearing, Alan Cooper, attorney for the Studio City-based developers, said at one point: "If you really want to look at it, this is a case of the wealthy homeowners trying to keep moderate-income renters out." That comment brought loud groans of protest from the audience, mainly elderly homeowners who oppose the apartment building.

Stevenson's Opposition

The Morton Avenue site is in the 13th District, where Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson faces five opponents in her April 9 bid for relection. One of Stevenson's deputies read a statement strongly urging the commission to deny vested rights.

Three of Stevenson's opponents--Michael Woo, Michael Linfield and Bennett Kayser--also spoke against the development. Linfield said, "The community, too, has vested rights: the right to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood, the right to schools that are not overcrowded, the right to streets that are free from gridlock."

Morton Avenue residents said construction crews had been working many late nights and on several Saturdays in a hurried attempt to accrue vested rights. "I feel big business is coming in and just riding over us," said Katharine Gosho-Tripp whose Park Drive house is above the construction site.

Charge Denied

The developers denied that, saying that work was done on only one Saturday after rain had prevented work the previous week. On most days, they said, crews finished by 4 p.m.

Marcus and the other four commissioners said they could find no evidence that the developer rushed construction, which could have been grounds to deny the permit. The work completed at the Morton Avenue site so far includes demolition of three houses, some grading and the starting of footings for retaining walls. The contractor has $538,182 in obligations in connection with the project, city inspectors said.

Work is more advanced at the Marathon Street project, where grading is complete and 100 feet of retaining walls have been built. Lee, whose office is in Koreatown, has incurred about $649,000 in expenses and contracts, according to an inspector's report.

Mary Kelly, who filed the appeal on behalf of the Marathon Co-op, the neighborhood housing group opposed to the construction, told the commissioners that Lee had spoken to community residents several times during the fall about possibly cutting down the number of units in the project.

'Acted in Bad Faith'

Kelly charged that such discussions were a ruse by Lee intended to delay Councilman John Ferraro from introducing the moratorium for the 4th District. "We feel Lee acted in bad faith. While he stalled the moratorium, he tried to put as much money into the ground to make a claim of vested rights," Kelly said.

Ferraro appeared briefly at the hearing to announce his opposition to Lee's project. One of Ferraro's deputies, Sharon Keyser, confirmed that Ferraro had postponed introduction of the moratorium in hope that a compromise could be reached with Lee. But she conceded that Lee had never explicitly asked for a delay.

Harry Zavos, Lee's attorney, said that Lee did consult with his lenders and architects and found that the project could not be trimmed. "Our financing is predicated on 107 units and on the kind of rentals 107 units will generate," Zavos said. When Lee continued to speak of compromises in November, Zavos said, the developer was speaking about landscaping and lighting, not about fewer units. He claimed that there may have been misunderstandings because Lee does not speak perfect English.

In announcing her vote, Marcus said: "I sympathize with the concerns of the community. But, on the other hand, I must abide with the law. I haven't seen that Mr. Lee has tried to defraud the community as such.

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