Hundreds of Harbor City homeowners trying to block construction of a hotel in a tree-lined residential neighborhood won a last-minute reprieve Wednesday when Los Angeles city inspectors ordered crews to stop digging trenches for the building's foundation.
Inspectors from the Department of Building and Safety halted construction of the 10-room hotel in the 1600 block of West 262nd Street after Planning Department officials discovered that the building permit may have been issued in March because of an erroneous map, according to Robert Harder, assistant chief in the city's building bureau.
Harder said the stop order, which was issued Tuesday but did not take effect until Wednesday when it was delivered to the developer, was the first issued by the city because of such a mistake. "There have been other errors on the maps, but I can't recall one ever going this far," Harder said.
Planning officials said they requested the stop order after realizing that the property, which is zoned for commercial use, had been designated for low-density residential development in the 1970 Wilmington-Harbor City District Plan. The city of Los Angeles is under court order to bring its zoning in line with its district plans, meaning proposed developments inconsistent with those plans must go through a review and hearing process before building permits can be issued.
Planning Assistant David Kuntzman said "consistency maps" used by officials who issued the building permit on March 17 incorrectly indicated that the property had been designated for commercial use in the district plan. Building officials are allowed to issue building permits routinely when the zoning and district plan uses are in accord.
"There was an error" when the consistency map was drawn up from the district plan, said Kuntzman, who discovered the mistake Monday. "Whoever had done that work had simply misread that street."
Residents in the verdant neighborhood, known as The Pines, said they hope the city's action will buy them time while they search for a permanent way to keep the hotel out of the community.
"If they can stop it long enough for us to get an attorney to see what we can do next, we'll be very happy," said Walt Bethurem, who has lived across the street from the property for 35 years. "Nobody can believe that they are going to put a hotel in the middle of our neighborhood."
Bethurem and about 300 of his neighbors had signed a petition in March opposing plans by developer Bill Freeman to construct a 10-unit apartment building on the 5,000-square-foot lot, where a single-family home stood until last month. A year-old moratorium on high-density apartment construction in Harbor City and Wilmington prohibits the development, but Freeman had applied for a hardship exemption.
Hardship Hearing Planned
The city's Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the hardship request on April 23, but Freeman, after learning that a report prepared by Planning Assistant Kuntzman recommends against the exemption, changed his plans in March from an apartment building to a hotel. The moratorium specifically exempts hotel construction.
"I prefer an apartment building, but if they don't want it, I will put in a hotel," Freeman said Tuesday.
The neighbors, most of whom consider a hotel worse than an apartment building, said they knew nothing of the hotel plans until last weekend when work crews showed up at the site.
"We had all these signatures on the petition, and we thought we were doing great," said Anne Box, who lives next to Freeman's property. "Next thing we knew, we went out for breakfast on Sunday and they were out there with blueprints for a hotel. I was so upset. . . . This is a dirty trick."
Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Harbor City and whose office had been working with the residents in opposing the proposed apartment building, said she also was unaware that Freeman had changed his plans until she was inundated with phone calls on Sunday from irate residents.
'Able to Find Loophole'
"The builder was able to find a loophole in the law that exempts hotels, but certainly if this area is not conducive to a 10-unit apartment building it is not conducive to a 10-unit hotel," said Flores. "This is a very nicely maintained low-density residential area. A hotel does not belong there."
Freeman, who owns two other apartment buildings in Harbor City, said he understands neighborhood opposition to his plans, but he said he needs to put a high-density development on the site to make it profitable. He said he would lose money if he built another single-family home there.
"I can understand why the neighbors would rather have a single-family residence than an apartment building, but then again we have a commercial lot," Freeman said. "If they don't want to live next door to a commercial lot then they shouldn't buy there. They should have enough sense to see what is around them or what can be around them."
The lot had once been part of a larger commercially zoned parcel bordering on nearby Anaheim Street, a major thoroughfare, Kuntzman said. The part bordering Anaheim was split off at some point, leaving the remainder of the property fronting on 262nd Street. Even though a home was built there, the zoning remained commercial.
Has Faith in Permit
Freeman said he carefully reviewed the zoning and district plans before he applied for the building permit and said he believes the permit was correctly issued. He accused city planning officials of "backtracking, looking for a reason to turn me down."
If the city should prevail in blocking both the apartment and hotel developments, Freeman said he was unsure of what he will do. He did say, however, that he would consider selling the property to residents--an option several residents said they would also consider.
"This is a little sanctuary in the middle of Harbor City," said Larry Pinkerton, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years. "We just want to keep the neighborhood like it is."