A Los Angeles zoning board indicated Tuesday that it may reject existing development plans for Howard Hughes Center, a project designed to bring at least two 20-story office towers and a high-rise, 600-room hotel to a site near Sepulveda Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway in Westchester.
Faced with homeowner complaints over building heights, the city's Board of Zoning Appeals balked at approving current plans for the center and postponed a formal vote on the case until March 4.
Despite the postponement, board members made it clear that they oppose a zoning variance that would allow developers to construct high-rise buildings on one side of the 69-acre project site. High-rise office towers--including at least eight that could be 10 stories or taller--have been a central feature of the 4-year-old development plan.
"I think the (plan) is unfair to the community," commented board chairman James Leewong, who said he sympathizes with homeowners living in bluff-top homes surrounding the project site. Those homeowners argued at the hearing that tall buildings would destroy their panoramic views.
Leewong compared the possible impact of the center to those of other major developments like Century City and the Westside Pavilion. "I think we should learn from those developments," he said, "and not have people suffer" because of high-rise buildings.
The proposed variance would allow developers to construct high-rise buildings on one side of the property in exchange for leaving some land largely undeveloped on other portions of the site.
To grant such a variance, board members said they must find that the approval would not hurt surrounding homeowners and that the denial of the variance would constitute an excessive hardship on the project's developers. Three board members--Leewong, Joseph Mandel and Ilene Olansky--said they could not make those conclusions.
The other two board members were absent Tuesday.
Although the issue will be considered again on March 4, Mandel suggested that developers use the additional time to work out possible compromises with homeowners. If the board denies the variance, developers would be forced to meet existing zoning laws--which could limit building heights in the project to about six stories--or to develop a new plan.
A new plan might enable developers to construct high-rise buildings but could delay the project about 10 months, said city zoning administrator Frank Eberhard. The zoning board's decision on the current case cannot be appealed to the City Council, he said.
After Tuesday's hearing, a visibly upset Bill McGregor, general manager of the Tooley & Co. development firm, refused to discuss how the board's position might affect the future of the project except to say the company would try to forge ahead.
"If you're asking me whether we're going to throw away four years of planning, the answer is no," McGregor said.
Tuesday's hearing came just four days after the City Council unanimously rejected homeowners' appeals of the overall size and scope of the project. Acting on recommendations from council President Pat Russell, whose district includes the site, the council endorsed plans that call for the center to contain a 600-room hotel and up to 2.7 million square feet of office space.
Patrick McCartney, president of a Westchester homeowners coalition, expects Tooley & Co. to try to circumvent the zoning board's position by bringing a revised development plan before the City Council. If the firm can win approval for changes in the property's tract map, he said, it would be able to construct high-rise buildings without a zoning variance.
"I would hope that this is more than a moral victory, but I'm not in a position to tell," McCartney said.
Testifying Tuesday, McGregor said the project was designed to accommodate homeowners nearest the site. High-rise buildings were planned for the side of the property near the freeway. The developers have built a narrow, 15-acre park between the project and surrounding homes.
As part of the project, developers would be required to spend about $10 million on new freeway on-ramps near the site. One of those ramps would allow travelers on the Marina Freeway to go southbound on the San Diego Freeway without exiting to surface streets.
McGregor told board members that the company could have developed the property without city approvals, but that the existing tract map for the property would have established an unattractive road pattern. The current design, he said, is "a far superior solution. It has involved a tremendous amount of work."