After more than a year and a half of negotiations and legal maneuvers, the city of West Hollywood is on the verge of acquiring a Santa Monica Boulevard median strip considered crucial to plans for the development of the street as the city's commercial lifeline.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury ruled last week that the value of the mile-long median is $1.45 million, a price the city of West Hollywood may have to pay to assume control of the property. The award ended a 4-year-old condemnation lawsuit initiated by the county and eventually joined by West Hollywood.
City officials have sought ownership of the median since West Hollywood's incorporation, insisting that once the strip belongs to the city, state Transportation Department officials would be less likely to press attempts to widen Santa Monica Boulevard.
Room for Pedestrians
Council members and city development officials, saying they want to preserve pedestrian traffic in the stores along the boulevard, have feared that losing control of the median would eventually lead to a street widening.
"Owning the median strip has always been one of our top priorities," West Hollywood City Manager Paul Brotzman said.
But now city officials must decide whether West Hollywood can afford to pay the $1.45 million. Although the figure reached by the jury was an apparent compromise between the value estimated by the Southern Pacific Transportation Co., owner of most of the median, and the price sought by the city, it was unclear this week whether city officials would accept that figure.
Although the railroad firm owns most of the median strip, several other smaller parcels under other owners are yet to be condemned.
City Atty. Michael Jenkins said the city has three options: accept the $1.45-million figure, try to negotiate it downward or simply abandon its attempt to own the median strip.
Up to City Council
While Brotzman said that the City Council would have to make the ultimate decision, city officials indicated that they were not overly pleased with the jury's decision.
"Our attitude was, 'The lower the better,' " Jenkins said. "It's a little higher than what we had hoped for, but it's not out of the ballpark."
Jenkins said city officials were strongly considering trying to negotiate a lower price with Southern Pacific. Although Jenkins would not rule out abandoning the median acquisition, other officials indicated that such a move would be an abrupt policy departure.
"We've always seen owning the median as an opportunity to create a great urban street," said Mark Winogrond, the city's Community Development Director.
Winogrond said that although there are no specific plans for the boulevard, a number of suggestions already have been proposed as part of the city's revamping of its General Plan, a process expected to be completed next year.
The possibilities suggested thus far include a series of fountains, permanent sculptures, a grove of trees or a slight narrowing of the median in certain sections in order to widen adjacent sidewalks to make room for outdoor cafes.
"We've even discussed an international design competition to come up with the best plans for the median," Winogrond said. "Whatever happens to that (median) island will affect any development we pursue on Santa Monica Boulevard."
The median was originally a railroad spur, but the rails have long since been removed. It is now a grassy strip, about the width of one traffic lane, decorated with some multicolored banners.
When Caltrans officials began pressing in the 1970s for the now-abandoned Beverly Hills Freeway, which was to link the San Diego Freeway and the Hollywood Freeway, state engineers discussed condemning the median property.
Although the freeway project was eventually scuttled, Caltrans officials still sought the median for any future widening of Santa Monica Boulevard. In 1982, Caltrans signed an agreement with Los Angeles County (which then administered the West Hollywood area) under which the county agreed to condemn the median and then turn it over to Caltrans. Legal condemnation proceedings started in August, 1982, eventually leading to the condemnation suit that was decided last week.
The situation changed with West Hollywood's incorporation in November, 1984. City Council members wanted protection against any Caltrans-sponsored widening of Santa Monica Boulevard. "Even if we own the median, Caltrans could still condemn it and buy it from us," Jenkins said. "But it wouldn't be easy for them."
In the months after incorporation, city officials began negotiating with the county and Caltrans to win the right to acquire the median. By late last year, with the widening of the boulevard seeming more remote because of the lack of federal highway funds, Caltrans and the county agreed to allow West Hollywood to take control of the median once the county had condemned the property.
As part of the agreement, West Hollywood officials let Dennis Devitt, the senior deputy county counsel who filed the condemnation lawsuit against Southern Pacific in 1982, finish the case. After more than 3 1/2 years of legal maneuvers, the suit went to trial June 30. The jury began deliberations July 8 and reached a verdict the following day.
Owner Wanted $5 Million
During the trial, Southern Pacific had estimated that its property was worth $5 million; Devitt's offer on behalf of the county and West Hollywood was $140,000.
While the jury's value for the property was higher than the city had hoped, Jenkins said it did not mean that West Hollywood would have to give up on acquiring the median. "The question is what can a city afford," he said.
Stephen Chase, an attorney for Southern Pacific, said he has yet to hear of any new negotiations over the median. But he added that West Hollywood would stand to lose a good deal if it abandons its attempt to buy the median.
"They would have to pay a lot in legal fees, witness fees and other damages," he said. "And if they ever wanted to try to acquire the property again, they might have a harder time of it, having already given up once."
Chase said that once a judgment is entered in the case, when the judge signs the written legal order, West Hollywood officials will have 30 days to either accept the figure, negotiate another one or turn it down. As of early this week, Chase said, the judgment had still not been entered.