The owner of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall has rented out a nearby storefront to the city's ethics commission, raising concerns among some Westwood activists that the firm is trying to win points with Los Angeles officials while pushing for a controversial expansion of the mall.
Westfield Inc. signed a six-month lease last month with the panel, which was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to rewrite the city's ethics law in the wake of allegations about his financial affairs. The $1,000 monthly rent for the storefront is well below prevailing rates in the neighborhood, but Westfield officials said it is line with rents charged previous tenants of the building.
"It would be fair to say anyone who was renting that space would be paying less than (for) a permanent space," said Robert Murray, Westfield's executive vice president. "We are not actively trying to market that place. Most people are not interested in coming in somewhere for just six months."
Murray said the company during the past year has rented out the storefront at similar rates to various political campaign staffs, including those for Los Angeles Councilman Nate Holden's mayoral campaign and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign. An aide to Holden said the councilman paid $3,000 to rent the building for six weeks.
The arrangement with the ethics panel nonetheless has annoyed some Westwood activists, who say it is wrong for the commission to receive below-market-rate accommodations from a developer with a project pending before the city. In January, Westfield Inc. received preliminary approval from the City Council to expand the mall, but still needs final approval to build a controversial bridge over Westwood Boulevard to connect the mall and annex.
"Of all the buildings to rent, you don't rent that one," said Sandy Brown, who heads a coalition of five homeowners groups near the mall that oppose the expansion. "This is a developer that still needs city approvals. . . . They should at least charge them market value."
Spokesmen for Bradley and the commission denied that the ethics panel has received special treatment.
"The conflict of interest assertion is absolutely ludicrous," said Bradley spokesman Bill Chandler. "The ethics panel has no official city capacity. The members of the ethics panel who were appointed by the mayor are private citizens who serve on an independent panel. The panel went to great lengths, when it began, to state how independent it in fact would be. . . . In fact, the ethics panel has had no contact with the mayor's office at all."
Geoffrey Cowan, the commission's chairman, said the panel selected the building at 10868 Pico Boulevard because it is just two blocks from his law firm, where the group had its temporary quarters before moving last month. Xandra Kayden, the commission's director, said the panel approached Westfield President Richard Green about renting the space--not vice versa.
"If Richard Green had been intending to curry favor with the mayor, which I guess is one of the issues, then why would he have rented the space previously to Nate Holden, the mayor's chief opponent?" Cowan asked.
Murray said Westfield plans to tear down the building near the corner of Westwood and Pico boulevards to make way for the mall's 105,000-square-foot expansion next January. Although local brokers say commercial space in the area is worth at least two to three times the $1,000 monthly rental rate of the storefront, Murray said the higher rates apply to longer leases on property that is kept in superior condition.
"Unlike a situation with tenants who (are in the mall), we are not out trying to get market rents that are demanded in the area because it is a short-term situation," Murray said. "You have to recognize that this is a building that is going to be torn down. It is in 'as-is condition.' If something isn't there, don't complain to me. I am not going to put it in."
'Paying Right Amount'
Cowan said it is unfair to compare the commission's rent with prevailing rents elsewhere in the neighborhood.
"For space that is totally raw space that is about to be torn down, there really isn't a market," Cowan said. "I think we should not be getting some special deal. We believe we are paying the right amount."
The ethics panel, which has raised about $32,000, is funded entirely from private sources.
Bradley spokesman Chandler said the mayor had nothing to do with the commission's decision to rent the office, and said there is no relationship between the city approvals of the Westside Pavilion expansion and the work of the ethics panel.
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area, agreed.
"While not all of the approvals have been granted, it is a foregone conclusion that they will be granted," he said of the mall expansion. "The fundamental policy decision about what to do with the property has been made by the City Council."