With the dust barely settled on a hard-fought development plan for Westwood Village, homeowners who had agreed to allow construction of a hotel in the village say they have found a glitch in the plan that could kill the project.
But Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and the city's highest-ranking zoning official insist that the discovery does not jeopardize the proposed 350-room hotel. The disagreement sets the stage for a showdown among the homeowners, Los Angeles city officials, hotel developers and the owners of a former UCLA dormitory that is at the center of the controversy.
This week, three Westwood homeowner groups hired an attorney and formally appealed a ruling by Zoning Administrator Franklin P. Eberhard that allows the hotel on a Glendon Avenue parking lot near Bullock's department store. The homeowners argue that the hotel should not be permitted because it would violate a cap on hotel construction included in the village plan.
Under Zoning Code
The plan, adopted by the City Council in December after four years of sometimes-stormy community debate, limits the number of hotel rooms in Westwood Village to 350. Although it generally had been assumed that the provision would allow Nansay Corp. to build a hotel on its Glendon Avenue parking lot, the homeowner groups now say the room limit has already been surpassed.
They argue that a former student dormitory on Tiverton Avenue that was converted in the early 1970s into a residential hotel for the elderly should be considered a hotel under the village plan. The owners of the building, known as Westwood Horizons, agree and have joined the homeowners in challenging Eberhard's ruling.
"They absolutely consider them selves a hotel," said Kenneth B. Bley, an attorney representing owner David Roberts. "It is now, and always has been, a hotel under the zoning code."
There are conflicting claims as to the size of Westwood Horizons. The building's 1966 certificate of occupancy lists 492 guest rooms, a number the homeowners say is accurate. Eberhard's report states there are 294 rooms, and Bley said the 13-story building has about 300 rooms. An aide to Yaroslavsky said the number is closer to 390.
Regardless of its size, city officials say they never intended to include Westwood Horizons in the calculation of allowable hotel rooms. Yaroslavsky said "everybody knew" that the 350-room limit, which had been reduced from 700 during negotiations, was calculated with the Nansay project in mind.
"In the years we spent on the plan, no issue dominated the discussion as much as the hotel site," Yaroslavsky said. "It was the most contentious issue of the bunch. Now, for anyone to come forward and say we didn't mean a new hotel is disingenuous."
Ryan Snyder, a member of the Westwood Design Review Board that must approve the Nansay project, agreed.
'A Question Mark'
"My understanding of the plan was that it would allow 350 new hotel rooms," he said. "Even though I may not like the hotel, it was what we all agreed to."
Laura Lake, president of Friends of Westwood, one of the groups challenging the new hotel, said the homeowners did not raise the issue of Westwood Horizons during negotiations on the plan because they did not know that it was a hotel. Various city records, including the 1966 certificate of occupancy, classify the building as a hotel.
"We had a question mark in our mind, and we let it ride," Lake said. "We can't do everything. We are volunteers in this community and there are a lot of fires to put out."
Lake agreed that the proposed Glendon Avenue hotel development "was one of the sore points" in negotiations over the village plan, and she acknowledged that she and other homeowners eventually supported a compromise allowing 350 rooms. But the discovery that Westwood Horizons is a hotel has changed the picture, she said.
"We said we would support a hotel, but if there is a hotel already, we are left in a predicament," Lake said. "We don't want to be overdeveloped with hotels. Our concern has always been not to get swamped. We felt the city was permitting way too many rooms."
If Westwood Horizons were to convert to a conventional hotel operation, Lake said the homeowners fear that the village could end up with two hotels with double the allowable 350 rooms. Bley said Roberts has no plans to convert the building "in the immediate future," but Yaroslavsky said Roberts told him that he would like to convert it "at some point in the future."
Ruling Allows Project
After being alerted to the dispute by Yaroslavksy, Eberhard issued a five-page opinion on July 7 that argues the room limit in the village plan, known officially as the Westwood Village Specific Plan, applies only to new hotel construction. Eberhard's ruling allows the Nansay project to proceed and it prohibits Roberts from converting Westwood Horizons without special city approval.
Attorneys for both the homeowners and Roberts dispute Eberhard's authority to rule in the matter, saying the city attorney's office should review it. But it is Eberhard's opinion that they have formally appealed to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, which is expected to schedule a hearing in the next two months.
In his ruling, Eberhard said that Westwood Horizons is an "apartment hotel" that rents on a monthly rather than daily basis and does not pay the so-called bed tax that conventional hotels pay. If the building were converted, he said, the new operation would be subject to city laws governing hotels, including one that prohibits them within 500 feet of residential neighborhoods without special approval.
Maria Hummer, an attorney for Nansay, said the Santa Monica firm is moving ahead with the hotel project, which also includes retail shops and condominiums. This week, the company began showing community leaders a model of the tiered complex, which will cover four acres and extend as high as eight stories.
"Nansay has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to date in its internal design competition to arrive at a project that is sensitive and complies with both the letter and the spirit of the Westwood Village Specific Plan," Hummer said.
Lake cautioned that it is too early to predict whether Nansay or Roberts will prevail.
"When we supported the plan, we were supporting a first-class hotel in the village," Lake said. "The question now is whose hotel is it going to be. This is really a judgment call--a legal question."