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In a Westside council race, a major landlord’s $400,000 donation causes a stir

Los Angeles firefighters respond to a blaze at a high-rise.
Los Angeles firefighters respond to a blaze at the Barrington Plaza in January 2020. The property’s owner has donated heavily to an independent expenditure committee aiding candidate Traci Park.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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The fierce competition to represent the Westside on the Los Angeles City Council has turned in recent days to the issue of how the two contenders are financing their campaigns, with primary winner Erin Darling saying that opponent Traci Park’s substantial fundraising advantage shows that she will be beholden to well-heeled business interests.

Park has raised more than three times as much as Darling for her campaign, but she has an even bigger advantage thanks to an independent expenditure committee aiding her campaign with more than $1.4 million. The money comes mostly from the union that represents rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers and from two large real estate corporations.

Darling, 41, suggests that the total of $700,000 given by the two major property interests will make Park susceptible to undue influence, including on a crucial and long-standing debate over installation of fire safety sprinklers in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise apartment complex owned by one of the companies. Douglas Emmett Inc.’s Barrington Plaza apartments have suffered life-threatening fires twice in the last nine years.

“There are a lot of corporate landlords and corporate developers supporting her,” Darling said in an interview. “So you wonder, what is she telling these folks behind closed doors, to prompt them giving that much money? ... What is she doing in return for that investment?”

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Park, 46, says that she can’t be bought by campaign donations and that if she is elected she will treat all of her constituents alike, regardless of whether they supported her or sided with her opponent.

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The candidate said she believes that she has drawn support from the independent donors — along with many voters — because she represents a stark departure from incumbent Councilman Mike Bonin, a progressive who is stepping down and supports Darling.

“Everyone will have full access to me and a seat at my table,” Park said. “I am willing to lead by establishing consensus and common ground. And that includes every constituent in this district. That is what my campaign has been about from day one.”

Darling finished first in the June primary with nearly 35% of the vote, though that’s well short of the 50% plus one vote needed to claim outright victory. Park came in second with 29%. Park and Darling got into a fierce dispute last week about their respective clients in their private legal practices, and what that work said about their leadership priorities.

Whoever succeeds Bonin will probably have to confront the broader question of fire safety rules in residential high-rises: At least three such complexes in the 11th District do not have fire sprinklers, among the 55 apartment and condominium high-rises citywide, with a total of 9,253 units, exempted from past laws requiring sprinklers.

The city has tried and failed several times to close the loophole and force installation of sprinklers and other safety devices, such as pressurized stairwells that keep out smoke.

Bonin led an effort in 2020 to resurrect the issue, asking the Fire Department and Department of Building and Safety to report back “with a plan and process” to require sprinklers in the buildings, which were built between 1943 and 1974.

The lack of sprinklers proved dangerous in 2013, when one of the three towers at the Barrington Plaza caught fire, displacing 125 residents. Fire erupted again in the same 25-story structure, known as Tower A, in 2020. A 19-year-old man died and 13 people were injured, including a 3-month-old baby and two firefighters. Eight floors in the building remain vacant.

Representatives of Douglas Emmett Inc., a publicly traded company worth about $3 billion, said they have been frustrated in their efforts to install sprinklers in Barrington Plaza, despite their good-faith efforts to work with the city. The company and “affiliated entities” have given a total of $400,000 to the independent campaign to elect Park, while the company’s employees have given $9,700 directly to the Park campaign, records show.

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An executive from the company met with Bonin last year to try to work out an agreement that would make installation of fire sprinklers feasible. The Santa Monica-based company said in a letter to Los Angeles officials last year that the required fire safety improvements would cost more than $150 million. In an email to The Times last week the company put the figure at more than $250 million.

The company said the higher estimate was because “costs have increased substantially” and because “we have learned more about requirements” from the Fire Department and Department of Building and Safety.

Bonin said he had come to see in nearly 10 years representing the district that developers frequently exaggerate estimated costs to try to bargain down city development requirements. “If you spend any time in the process of City Hall, you know that whatever number a developer comes into the room with is fictitious,” Bonin said.

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Douglas Emmett representatives expressed equal distrust in the councilman, saying he “would not support this effort to keep residents safe.”

The crux of the disagreement centers on the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance and the “tenant habitability plan” it imposes on owners — outlining both payments to help tenants relocate during major construction projects and a “right of return” that allows tenants to move back into their units after work is completed.

Douglas Emmett said the tenant habitability plan would be unworkable for the 712-unit complex, offering renters an extended period for appeals and lawsuits, variables that would make the work logistically and financially unfeasible.

The landlord offered alternative proposals that it said would protect tenants, including payments outlined under the city rent law for those who voluntarily move out of buildings.

But the company acknowledged in its email to The Times that it had offered the “right of return” only to some Barrington Plaza tenants — those “who have been in the buildings for over 4 years and whose rent was more than 10% below market because of that long period.” The company did not respond to a question about how many tenants got such an offer.

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Bonin brought Larry Gross, a tenants’ rights advocate with the Coalition for Economic Survival, into the discussions with the landlord. Both Gross and Bonin said that Douglas Emmett was pushing for a plan that would permanently move renters out for the fire safety work, thereby clearing the way for rents to be pushed up to market rates. (The rent controls under the city’s rent ordinance would be reimposed once new tenants move in.)

“They wanted their own special exemption [from the Rent Stabilization Ordinance] which would have resulted in the displacement of all the tenants in Barrington Plaza,” Gross said. “And that would have meant jacking up the rents and a bonanza in additional profits for them.”

Douglas Emmett executives rejected the notion that they would use fire safety improvements as a subterfuge to increase rents, and profits. They cited the inability of the owners of 55 high-rises to make the improvements as proof that it is city officials who have imposed unreasonable regulations.

“Fire and life safety measures are about protecting people,” said Stuart McElhinney, vice president of investor relations for Douglas Emmett. “That’s why it is especially disappointing that some politicize critical fire life safety issues just to make a point for a campaign.”

Darling, Bonin and Gross made no apologies for making the donations from the real estate corporation an issue in the City Council race. All three said they believe that the company’s connection to the candidate gives the appearance it could receive favored treatment from a future Councilwoman Park.

“My sense is that they are particularly fond of Traci,” Bonin said. “And they are particularly freaked out by the prospect of Erin, who is actually a tenants’ rights attorney.”

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Douglas Emmett representatives said they met with many candidates for City Council, both in the 11th District and other parts of the city. None of the candidates, including Park, “made promises or representations to us,” the company said in its emailed statement to The Times.

Park insisted she would play no favorites. “For anyone, whether they have been a donor to my campaign or not, for every decision, I am going to be transparent and adhere to the ethical rules that are required of me,” she said.

The real estate company said it donated to Park and others who shared its concern about “policing and homelessness” and believed that she would represent a dramatic shift from Bonin’s policies, while Darling would offer more of the same.

Another major donor to the fund supporting Park has been Kilroy Realty, a publicly traded real estate corporation, which gave $300,000. The company, which is valued at nearly $5 billion, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Chief Executive John Kilroy expressed deep dismay during a 2020 interview about the spread of homeless people around the streets of L.A., blaming local elected officials.

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“I can tell you today,” Kilroy said at a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce event, “I would not invest another dollar in Los Angeles County anywhere without a change in policy, and I’m beginning to feel that way about San Francisco and generally about California.”

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, representing LAPD officers, organized the independent expenditure campaign for Park. At more than $1.4 million, it is one of the largest such campaigns in any council district and is substantially larger than the roughly $1 million that Darling and Park have cumulatively raised for their own campaigns.

Still, Darling finished No. 1 in the primary after being battered by an earlier Police Protective League campaign, which depicted him in mailers as the “handpicked twin” of Bonin and an unreformed leftist, who would attempt to defund and then “abolish” the police. Darling calls that an absurd exaggeration of his real stance.

He says he would redirect some police money to other services, such as recreation, homeless outreach and mental health care, to relieve police of social problems that they are not trained to handle.

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