Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, under fire from an opponent in the March election, said Thursday that he has pulled his support for a controversial 20-story residential tower proposed near the Beverly Center.
Koretz, standing on La Cienega Boulevard near the project site, said he now thinks the planned apartment building is "too tall" — and wants real estate developer Rick Caruso to enter into additional talks with a homeowners group.
"I'm calling on Mr. Caruso to continue meeting with neighborhood representatives and to shrink the project until it is appropriate for the area," said Koretz, who represents neighborhoods from the Westside north to Encino.
The announcement came a day after The Times reported that Caruso, his family members, his companies, his charity and his employees provided more than $476,000 over the past five years to L.A. city politicians and their pet causes.
Koretz's hastily called news conference took place five hours after his opponent, attorney Jesse Max Creed, held his own media event on La Cienega to speak against the project — and the array of contributions made by Caruso to L.A. politicians and their causes.
At that event, Creed said approval of the project would amount to a "handout" to a billionaire, since the city currently allows buildings no taller than 45 feet on the site. Creed called on Koretz and Koretz's planning aide, who ran unsuccessfully for state office earlier this year, to give back contributions they have received from Caruso in recent years.
Hours later, after learning of Koretz's change in position, Creed called the councilman's move "the height of political opportunism." Koretz, he said, was "happy enough" to support the project after receiving $2,200 in donations from Caruso over five years.
"He's only flip-flopping now because members of the community are holding him accountable for his actions," Creed said in a statement.
Caruso had no comment on Koretz's announcement. Koretz said he had not yet spoken with the developer about his decision.
Koretz said he changed his mind after a Dec. 15 meeting with the representatives of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., which submitted a petition with more than 1,000 signatures opposing Caruso's project. Koretz said he was also influenced by a meeting with neighborhood leaders from his district.
Asked why he waited to reveal his newfound position until Thursday, the same day as a news conference by his opponent, Koretz said: "To be honest, we wanted to wait until the holidays were over."
Koretz said Caruso had given him "very modest" contributions — $700 to his 2013 election campaign and $1,500 to his office holder accounts. "If there were an easy way, and I saw a need to, I'd be happy to give back $2,000," he said.
Koretz is running in the March 7 election for a third term. He had voiced support for Caruso's project in recent weeks, while also asking for the developer to seek common ground with the project's remaining opponents.
At one point, Koretz had commended Caruso for making the project somewhat taller and thinner, saying that move had preserved the views of some neighbors.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the La Cienega project next month.
Opponents say the proposal is the latest example of city officials working to change the planning rules for a well-connected developer. They warn that Caruso's 145-unit apartment building would set a precedent, prompting other nearby property owners to propose luxury apartments much taller than the rules allow.
Backers of the project, including local neighborhood council leaders, say Caruso's project would bring much-needed amenities, including a 6,910-square-foot plaza with a fountain and 14 apartments rented at below market rates.
Caruso, in an interview last week, said he worked extensively to meet the neighborhood's needs, redesigning the project and offering additional concessions. He also said he had never seen a decision at City Hall that was "influenced by somebody who gave money."
"Usually, in my opinion, it's just the opposite," he said.
Caruso's foundation has given $125,000 to a nonprofit group created by Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose appointees on the Planning Commission endorsed the La Cienega project last month.
An additional $200,000 went to support Measure M, the transit tax hike championed by the mayor. And $100,000 went from Caruso to a campaign committee set up by Councilman Mike Bonin to support Measure M and a second measure designed to pay for homeless housing.
Bonin, also running for re-election, issued a statement earlier this week saying he was pleased to have secured Caruso's financial support for the two tax measures.
"Rick is a constituent, a friend, and a problem solver, and Mike is grateful that he and Rick see eye to eye on solutions to our biggest problems," Chad Molnar, Bonin's chief of staff, said in an email.
Caruso hosted fundraisers for Bonin's council campaigns in 2013 and 2015.
Mark Ryavec, a consultant who is running against Bonin, said the councilman should not have accepted the $100,000 donation from Caruso in September. Three months earlier, the council voted in favor of a Caruso retail project in Pacific Palisades, which is part of Bonin's district.
That type of big-money fundraising "destroys the public's faith that decisions are being made objectively and based upon the law," Ryavec said.
Ryavec said his campaign will not accept donations from real estate developers.
7:05 p.m.: This article was updated with Koretz's announcement that he no longer supports the project, calling it "too tall."