Court Blocks $88-Million Project in Westwood

Times Legal Affairs Writer

Construction of a proposed 26-story, $88-million office and shopping complex on the site of the old Ship's Coffee Shop in Westwood Village was blocked Friday by a state Court of Appeal until an environmental impact report is considered.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Cole sanctioned the project last July, ruling that the Friends of Westwood had little chance of convincing a trial judge or jury that the granting of a building permit by the City of Los Angeles was a "discretionary" act governed by the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970.

That law requires preparation and approval of an environmental impact report for any private or public project that may have a significant effect on the environment.

Agency's Discretion

A government agency can simply declare that no report is necessary because the project would scarcely affect the environment or can sidestep the act, as city officials did for the Westwood project, by claiming that approval was a "ministerial" move exempt from the law.

Attorneys for the city and developer, Wilshire-Glendon Associates, argued that all building permit approvals are ministerial acts that do not require environmental impact reports, and that to single out the Westwood development would throw Los Angeles' system for approving about 40,000 building permits a year into chaos.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal, in a 42-page opinion that could affect other major building projects within Los Angeles, reversed Cole, saying that it is "reasonably probable" that Friends of Westwood can prove the building permit process was a "discretionary project" covered by the law. Probability of succeeding at trial is a primary requirement for the granting of a preliminary injunction.

Delay Possible

The appellate decision--written by Justice Earl Johnson with the concurrence of Justices Mildred Lillie and Leon Thompson--would prevent construction until city officials prepare an environmental impact report or declare one unnecessary, until a full trial is held in the case, or until the Supreme Court changes the ruling.

"I am flabbergasted," said Kenneth B. Bley, attorney for the developer, when informed of the ruling. "I think the court is mistaken. Whatever the grounds are, they are wrong. We are going to do whatever we can to get it reversed."

Bley said construction has not begun on the project because of the pending litigation.

The appellate court, however, stopped short of declaring that environmental impact reports must be prepared for all building permits.

Issue in Doubt

"We have some doubts the building permit approval process would be tied in knots even were we to hold all building permits were discretionary. Both sides, for their own reasons, pointed out San Francisco has designated all building permits to be discretionary and thus subject to the environmental provisions of CEQA. No evidence was submitted suggesting this has led to a regulatory quagmire in that city," Johnson wrote.

"Nonetheless, we emphasize we are not holding in this opinion that all or most building permit approvals in Los Angeles represent 'discretionary projects.' Quite the contrary, the vast majority of building permits issued in this city probably do not cross the threshold level of discretion required. . . ."

In approving the Westwood building, the justices concluded, city officials had made discretionary decisions waiving certain fire code requirements designed to prevent the spread of smoke, sidestepping density standards in Westwood's development plan and avoiding considerations about traffic congestion. The Friends of Westwood, a homeowners group, claims the project would overload area streets and sewers.

"The issuance of the building permit is the only point at which the environmental impact of this project may be publicly considered," Johnson wrote, "before a concrete and glass 'mountain' is erected and Westwood's streets are filled with hundreds of additional vehicles."

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