2 Neighbors of Building to Settle Suit Over Height

Times Staff Writer

The builder of a controversial Studio City office building has agreed to pay neighboring residents cash to avoid the threat of demolition of his $ 4.3-million project.

Two homeowners have tentatively agreed to drop a lawsuit against developer Eitan Gonen and withdraw a series of protests they have lodged with Los Angeles officials, the pair said Monday.

In exchange, they would share with their lawyer in a $310,000 settlement, according to others in the community who reacted with surprise to the agreement.

Lawyers for both sides in the dispute refused to discuss the amount of the proposed settlement. They said terms of the pact call for the total to remain secret.

Homeowners Charles Bernuth and Michael Minkow had charged that Gonen's "three-story" building at the southeast corner of Fairway Avenue and Ventura Boulevard is actually seven stories tall.

They claimed that city officials had allowed the project to violate terms of its building permit and provisions of city zoning laws restricting the height of new buildings in the area.

Demolition Urged

The protests led to a series of hearings before the city's Building and Safety Commission, where City Councilman Michael Woo entered the fray by urging commissioners to order the demolition of the top two floors of the building.

Approval of the settlement would end the city's review of the controversial project by terminating proceedings before the commission and city zoning officials.

Bernuth and Minkow own property on Sunswept Drive on either side of Rosalee and Dean Jeffries, who have filed a separate lawsuit against Gonen but have not filed appeals with the city.

The Jeffries had hoped the city would pressure Gonen to lower the height of his building--which completely blocks their hillside view of the eastern San Fernando Valley.

"I can't believe this is happening," said Rosalee Jeffries. "This is the worst week of our life. Our suit is still pending, but it's four years down the line."

Word of the proposed settlement also angered others in Studio City. "I'm happy for the homeowners who are settling, but I would prefer to see the building's height brought down," said Polly Ward, president of the Studio City Residents Assn. "Unfortunately, I guess it's too late for that."

Woo Maintains Opposition

A spokesman for Woo said the councilman is still opposed to the height of the Fairway Building, but now may turn his attention to traffic problems at Fairway and Ventura.

"If everyone reaches a settlement and the community supports it, the councilman will support the community," said Eric Roth, an aide to Woo who has been involved for months in negotiations over the building.

Roth acknowledged that Woo's clout will be reduced if the appeals before city building commissioners are dropped. The Fairway Building is nearing completion and will be eligible for an occupancy permit once the appeals are withdrawn.

Woo will be left with "the power of any councilman" to set up meetings with the developer and attempt to negotiate improvements to the project, Roth said.

Gonen declined comment Monday on the proposed settlement. His lawyers would say little.

"Obviously, this building has a public side to it, a bit of notoriety," said Ellwood Lui, whose law firm is one of three representing Gonen. "But we are endeavoring to reach a settlement that will be fair to all sides."

Another of Gonen's lawyers, Benjamin M. Reznik, agreed that the dispute has been "politically charged" and financially draining for the developer.

"He's not thrilled, he's not drinking champagne," Reznik said. "But this was bleeding him. It was not something from a business point of view to continue."

1,000 Hours Without Pay

Daniel M. Shapiro, a lawyer for Bernuth and Minkow, said his office has spent more than 1,000 hours on the case "without being paid a dime."

Shapiro denied suggestions by Ward and the Jeffries that he would receive $150,000 and his clients about $80,000 each. He said his obligation was to look out for the interests of his two clients, not to the community as a whole.

"As much as this is a public issue, it's a private issue for some people who have been extremely adversely affected," Shapiro said. "I think it's safe to say the clients are very satisfied with the terms of the proposed settlement."

As for the Jeffries, they can expect a phone call soon from Gonen, his lawyers indicated.

"It's not our intention to leave them out in the cold," Reznik said. "We plan to discuss a settlement with them. We can only do one thing at a time."

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