A Los Angeles City Council committee Tuesday debated what seemed to be a routine issue: whether to permit construction of a 14-story hotel in Warner Center.
That issue, however, has drawn anything but routine attention. It has inspired an extraordinary lobbying battle between rival San Fernando Valley developers.
The Planning and Environment Committee on Tuesday put off until Sept. 24 its vote on a recommendation to the full council on whether to grant a permit allowing construction of a 340-room Hilton Hotel in Warner Center.
The committee’s hesitancy came amid an intense behind-the-scenes battle waged by developer Norman Kravetz, who is seeking city approval to build the Hilton, and Robert Voit, a competing developer who is seeking to stop the project. Marriott Corp. is building a 17-story, 470-room hotel on land owned by Voit about one mile from the Hilton Hotel’s proposed site on Canoga Avenue south of Victory Boulevard.
Usually, only one lobbyist is involved when it comes to promoting a single project. But, with millions of dollars at stake, the opponents have hired teams of high-powered lobbyists, including Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a former congresswoman and former Los Angeles County supervisor, and former Councilman Robert M. Wilkinson, to argue their cases privately to council members.
It also is unusual to find lobbyists for a developer working to kill a project.
“There’s an awful lot of heavy lobbying going on here,” Councilwoman Joy Picus, whose district includes Warner Center, said in an interview. But she said she was not surprised, explaining, “Warner Center is high-priced territory.”
Planning Commissioner Suzy Neiman said she has not seen so many lobbyists involved in a single planning issue since the intense battle among cable TV companies a few years ago for the city’s franchises.
Among those lobbying for construction of the hotel, besides Burke and Wilkinson, are Ken Spiker, the city’s former chief legislative analyst; Steve Afriat, former chief deputy to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, and Gary Morris, a professional lobbyist.
Opposing the project are prominent City Hall lobbyists H. Randall Stoke and George Mihlsten, political consultants Rick Taylor and Lesley Winner, and Curtis Rossiter, former chief deputy to Russell. Norm Emerson, an executive with Voit’s development company and former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley, also is involved in the effort to kill the project.
“I think, if a person feels strongly about something, he tries to bring all the resources to bear to advocate that position as effectively as possible,” Emerson said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.
“We felt it was important not to take any member of council for granted.”
Emerson said several lobbyists are needed because each has a different “special relationship” with a council member.
Integrity of Plan Cited
Emerson said that Voit opposes the hotel’s construction because it violates the integrity of the master plan for Warner Center, which calls for a concentration of high-rise buildings in the core of the 1,100-acre area between Canoga Avenue and Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
Emerson said that, because Voit is only leasing the land for the proposed Marriott Hotel, he has nothing to gain financially from the city’s refusal to allow construction of another hotel.
“The issue is the integrity of the plan,” Emerson said. “It’s the first time that a major decision has come before the council testing the policy recommendations contained in the plan. . . . The issue is important because of the precedent it sets for the future of Warner Center.”
Kravetz did not comment on Voit’s motives for opposing the hotel’s construction, but defended the project as “high-quality” and said he was asking only for “equal development rights.” Kravetz said he envisions the hotel as part of a $135-million high-rise office and recreation project called Trillium.
Neither developer would disclose how much he is spending on the lobbying.
The lobbying is part of a battle begun last October, when the council added language to the development plan for the Warner Center area that specifically allowed Kravetz to apply for a conditional-use permit for the hotel.
The council now has before it Kravetz’s request for a permit, which is needed because his property is zoned for manufacturing.
The committee vote was put off Tuesday after after Chairman Howard Finn said he is opposed to the project but would give proponents a chance to change his mind.
With committee member Pat Russell opposing the project and Bob Farrell supporting it, Finn holds the swing vote. Every vote is important because the project’s proponents need 10 of the 15 council votes to override a Planning Commission decision disapproving the development. If Mayor Tom Bradley vetoes the permit, 12 votes would be required to override him.
Picus Speaks in Support
Picus was among those speaking in support of the project during the committee hearing. She has contended that, although the property is zoned for manufacturing, it is largely developed for commercial use.
“They talk about the integrity of the plan,” she said, responding to Voit’s objections. “I don’t understand it, when we changed the plan to say there could be a hotel.”
Usually, council members defer to colleagues when an issue affects only the colleague’s district. But the council occasionally has departed from that custom, especially when it is heavily lobbied, as it did last year in rejecting a building moratorium in Westwood supported by that area’s councilman, Yaroslavsky.
Russell, in explaining her opposition to the hotel project, said she is concerned that such development on land zoned for manufacturing would further erode the city’s declining industrial base.
Finn said he was concerned that the hotel would generate so much added traffic that it would preclude development by anyone else in the area.