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Judge's ruling on Sunset/Gordon tower puts tenants in limbo

Judge's ruling on Sunset/Gordon tower puts tenants in limbo
The 22-story Sunset and Gordon tower in Hollywood in October 2014. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At 22 stories, the Sunset and Gordon residential tower is the most prominent example so far of Mayor Eric Garcetti's push to make Hollywood a place for high-density, high-rise living.

But the future of that newly completed, 299-unit project is up in the air. A judge earlier this month issued a ruling invalidating the construction permits, saying city officials improperly allowed the developer to demolish a 1924 building that until recently housed an Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant.

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City officials say they are still trying to figure out what the ruling means for the 40 or so tenants who have already moved in. Luke Zamperini, spokesman for the Department of Building and Safety, said it is possible the tenants will have to relocate until developer CIM Group obtains new permits. Other officials are hoping it won't come to that.

It's the latest of several setbacks for the city as it seeks to remake Hollywood with a series of big developments. Two months ago, a judge halted construction of a 74-foot-tall Target shopping center on Sunset Boulevard, saying the city had improperly allowed the project to exceed a 35-foot height limit.

Another judge forced the City Council to rescind a controversial 2012 plan allowing for taller buildings near transit stops in Hollywood, concluding the council had relied on out-of-date population data.

Community groups also are waging a legal fight that has slowed the planned Millennium project, a pair of 35- and 39-story skyscrapers. Opponents contend an earthquake fault runs beneath the site and construction is on hold until the case is resolved.

Attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who represented the activists in all four legal battles, said Hollywood's aging infrastructure cannot handle the "densification" Garcetti is planning. Neighborhood groups who are suing, he said, simply want the city to follow the law.

"Instead what we constantly see … is a city mentality of throwing the zoning code out the window whenever it benefits a favored developer," Silverstein said.

Hollywood has 1 million square feet of new office space and nearly 1,800 housing units that are either under construction or recently completed, said Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Gubler said it makes sense to put office towers and residential high-rises on transit corridors such as Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. "What we're trying to do is create a livable community," he said.

Gubler fears the rash of lawsuits will send a message that it's "difficult" to get projects built in Hollywood.

"The development could go anywhere," he said. "They're investing private dollars, and those dollars are what it takes to revitalize a community."

Hollywood, which endured decades of decline and crime problems, has bounced back dramatically in the last 15 years. The district has become a magnet for trendy bars and restaurants as well as big developments such as the Hollywood & Highland shopping center and the ritzy W hotel, which was built during Garcetti's time on the City Council.

Garcetti did not address the lawsuits directly but said through an aide that CIM Group and other developers are transforming Hollywood in a positive way.

"Mayor Garcetti will continue to support projects like … Sunset/Gordon that help bring our neighborhoods back to life and create jobs," said spokesman Jeff Millman.

The site where CIM Group built its Sunset and Gordon tower included the Old Spaghetti Factory building, which over the decades housed a car dealership, an actors' studio and two radio stations. When the project was approved, city officials called for the restaurant's columned facade to be preserved and incorporated into the residential tower.

In 2012, CIM Group obtained a report from its architect saying the facade was too deteriorated to be saved. The company opted to build a replica instead.

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Silverstein said he learned of CIM Group's demolition plans just as the company was pressing city officials to sign off on the idea. "CIM then rushed to the site, without obtaining all permit sign-offs, and worked past dark to create a fait accompli," he said in the lawsuit. CIM Group later countered that it went through the proper city procedures to obtain the demolition permit.

Silverstein's client, the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Assn., went to court and asked for an injunction to halt construction. The same judge denied that request, informing Silverstein that La Mirada first needed to challenge the project's building permits at City Hall.

La Mirada filed the paperwork and in February 2014, Garcetti's appointees on the Central Area Planning Commission found that the building and safety agency had "erred or abused its discretion" by approving the demolition permit. But the five-member panel also concluded that the project's other construction permits remained valid.

In his lawsuit, Silverstein called that decision improper, saying all of the project's permits should have been invalidated. Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant sided with Silverstein and noted that preservation of the facade was a specific condition of the project's approval.

The judge said in his ruling that CIM Group made a "calculated business decision" to continue construction while La Mirada waged its legal challenge. The company kept building, he wrote, at "its own peril."

CIM Group issued a statement saying it is awaiting the judge's written judgment while providing tenants with "a quality building and premier management." The company still has the option to file an appeal, a move that could put Chalfant's ruling on hold.

Silverstein said that, at a minimum, CIM Group must stop leasing the Sunset and Gordon project.

The city spared CIM Group from having to build millions of dollars in underground parking spaces as a result of the developer's agreement to to save the restaurant facade, Silverstein said. If the permits are invalidated, then the building cannot legally be occupied, he added.

Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said the city is working to comply with the judge's ruling. "The decision states that 'all permits are void,'" Wilcox said in an email.

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who replaced Garcetti in July 2013, said he hopes those who have moved into the high-rise are not forced out while CIM Group prepares additional environmental review of the project.

"If I put my feet into the shoes of the tenants who moved into that building, it's very unlikely they knew anything about the litigation," O'Farrell said. "And now they're going to be inconvenienced. The whole affair is just kind of sad and unfortunate and I hate to see them be made to move."

Follow @DavidZahniser for more news from L.A. City Hall.

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