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California

L.A. faces lawsuit over demolition of former Marilyn Monroe home

Marilyn Monroe in 1952

Marilyn Monroe is photographed in court during a 1952 indecency case.

(Nelson Tiffany / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is facing a lawsuit over the demolition of a San Fernando Valley house that Marilyn Monroe once lived in, filed by residents who argue that the city trampled state and local laws when the City Council gave the green light for new condos to be built on the site.

The suit also accuses the City Council of illegally striking an agreement to back any development project supported by the council member who represents the area -- an alleged practice that the suit says flouts state laws that ban trading votes and require public decision-making.

“If your hands are bound by a behind-the-scenes voting agreement, then obviously you’re not deliberating in public,” said Richard MacNaughton, one of two attorneys representing an unincorporated association of Los Angeles County residents called Save Valley Village.

A spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer said that his staff was reviewing the complaint and could not comment further at this time. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents the Valley Village area, also declined to comment.

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Vanessa Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for City Council President Herb Wesson, said she had not seen the details of the lawsuit, but suggested that it was not troubling for council members to listen to the lawmaker who represented the area of a new project.

In general, “the locally elected representative is the best equipped individual to provide their City Council colleagues with guidance” on issues that specifically affect their district, Rodriguez said Monday.

The Save Valley Village lawsuit seeks to roll back city approval for a five-unit condominium project being created by developer Joe Salem on the site of the demolished home.

It comes on the heels of several courtroom defeats for the city that have invalidated its development decisions, including rulings that halted construction on a half-finished Target on Sunset Boulevard and rolled back approval for a Hollywood high-rise that was already occupied by tenants.

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The house at the heart of the dispute was torn down days before a Cultural Heritage Commission hearing on whether to consider making the onetime home of the silver screen bombshell a historic monument.

Building department officials said the demolition permit had been obtained before the historic monument application was filed. City staffers did not recommend considering the house as a possible monument, arguing that Monroe didn’t break into the film industry until years later.

Monroe “only resided at the property for one year and did not live in the unit during the productive period of her career,” a report by city planning officials said.

Save Valley Village counters that the home captured the essence of her life at a crucial stage. “While Norma Jean was born at County Hospital in Lincoln Heights, Marilyn Monroe’s career was born while living in this house,” the lawsuit argues.

The group contends that the city had “overwhelming evidence” that it should have prepared an environmental impact report on the planned condos that considered possible alternatives to tearing down the Hermitage Avenue building, such as relocating it elsewhere.

It also contends that Salem had illegally demolished the home because the proper notices and inspections had not been done and that city officials knew that -- or should have known.

Salem could not be reached for comment Monday morning at one of his companies. In an email, his attorney, Alicia Bartley, said the structure was torn down with a valid demolition permit and that “all approvals were issued in accordance with applicable laws.”

“We are confident that all of the petitioners’ claims will be defeated,” Bartley wrote in an email. The condo project also survived earlier challenges at the South Valley Area Planning Commission and a City Council committee, which voted to deny an appeal against the project.

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The Valley Village group is seeking to reverse city approval of the project, revoke its city permits and stop it from getting any more approvals.

It also wants the city to nullify any development projects that have gotten unanimous approval in the last year, which it claims occurs “over 99% of the time.” The Valley Village project, which was unanimously approved, is an example of the practice, MacNaughton said.

Save Valley Village isn’t the first group to point out how frequently the council votes in unison: Five years ago, the Center for Governmental Studies found that votes had been unanimous 99.993% of the time during seven months of the previous year.

Though most council members were “ideologically in sync,” the report also said that “the cost of opposing fellow council members is high,” citing “council insiders” who said that “members face retribution for casting votes against the projects of other council members.”

The Save Valley Village lawsuit was originally filed last week.

Follow @latimesemily on Twitter for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall.

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