Opinion – Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How “NIMBYs” Are Not to Blame for the Target Fiasco at Sunset and Western

Editor’s note: Last week, Streetsblog Los Angeles ran an opinion piece from one of our occasional contributors, Alexander Friedman. The piece told Friedman’s side of the story regarding a controversial and currently half-built Target store at the corner of Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Friedman’s piece generated a lot of comments, some insightful, some sympathetic, some angry. We’re happy that it fostered a dialogue about what kind of development makes sense for a more walkable, more livable Hollywood. Another friend of the blog, David Bell, is a lawyer in the suit that Friedman wrote about. Bell approached SBLA requesting that we publish the following article to set the record straight on what was legally at issue with this ill-fated development. SBLA is not taking sides on this issue, but the disputes here highlight some of the difficulties in planning and developing Los Angeles’ walkable future. 

The half-built Target store at the corner of Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
The half-built Target store at the corner of Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

A recent Streetsblog post by Alexander Friedman, Opinion – Hollywood’s Biggest Eyesore: Blame Developers? No, Blame NIMBYs, is rife with factual errors and distortions.

As the lawyer for the group called out in the article as the sole cause of the mess at Sunset and Western, I know a little bit about the facts of the case. As a former President of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, I was involved in the approval process of this project from the very beginning. When involved in a pending case – we’re currently in the Court of Appeal – I generally don’t get into these kinds of discussions. But the factual claims in Mr. Friedman’s article are so divorced from reality, and the implications so damaging to my client’s reputation, I felt compelled to respond.

Mr. Friedman begins by describing Target Corporation’s “ambitious plan” to bring the joys of discount shopping to East Hollywood. But Target’s own court filings state that its initial plan was much more in keeping with the law, and that it was “the City’s idea” [read then-Councilman Garcetti] to push for a project requiring eight exceptions to the specific plan that governs that area of Hollywood.

Next Mr. Friedman says that, while the project was met with “some opposition, … most residents supported it.” How exactly does Mr. Friedman know this? Studies? Polls? Any evidence at all? Actually, the certified Neighborhood Council for the area was adamantly opposed to the project as designed. The chair of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council at the time was Steven Whiddon – a former staffer for Mitch O’Farrell, a vocal proponent of the Hollywood Community Plan, and a booster for exactly the type of development Mr. Friedman supports. Hardly a NIMBY.

Mr. Friedman says “the only issue is the overall project height,” and that the height was “slightly above the area’s zoning ordinance.” Actually, the project required eight exceptions from the specific plan, not one, and the height of the project is more than double the specific plan’s limitations.

Interestingly, the specific plan for the area contains a provision which would allow for a project like Target to avoid the height limitation. Mixed-use projects – those which combine residential with commercial components – are allowed to go twice as high as commercial-only projects. By allowing a commercial-only project to double the height limit for the neighborhood, the exceptions granted to this project create a precedent that would nullify this important housing incentive. If upheld, the exceptions would also would set in motion a destructive domino effect that other developers would seek to imitate when the infrastructure for the area (streets, police, fire and emergency services, sewer, etc.) already are beyond capacity.

Mr. Friedman then names my clients and claims that NIMBYs are “infamous for rejecting any and all developments.” But the people I represent are not opposed to all development. These are the same people who fought for the housing incentive to be included in the specific plan. There are numerous projects which have gone up in Hollywood without opposition. More specifically, nobody in the group that I represent or the other community group that challenged Target’s violations of the specific plan ever opposed Target per se. What they opposed was a code-violating, environmentally damaging project. The original proposal by Target for a code compliant project was embraced. Mr. Friedman needs to do more fact checking, and less generalizing. 

Mr. Friedman describes my clients as wanting to “block the project under any pretense.” But the basis of the court challenge to the exceptions granted for this project is that they were not supported by “substantial evidence.” That is the same standard applied to every variance. This is not a “pretense,” it’s the bedrock of the law. The judge didn’t just pull his decision out of thin air – he analyzed the evidence in a thorough and well-reasoned manner. A judge is not simply free to look at a project, decide some people like it, and issue a decision on that basis.

Mr. Friedman takes to task other media outlets who have blamed this mess on the developer and former Councilman, now Mayor, Eric Garcetti. With a particularly high degree of chutzpah, Mr. Friedman claims the LA Times and others “didn’t bother researching who was the real culprit behind this sudden work stoppage!” I challenge anyone to find one shred of actual research behind Mr. Friedman’s unfounded opinion.

Mr. Friedman claims the judge and those members of the community opposed to the project “ignored common sense,” and clung to a mere “formality” by insisting that the City and the developer comply with the law. If Mr. Friedman would have looked at the record in this case, he would have seen that I, and the people I represent, have been actively engaged in this process for more than six years. Over and over we urged the developer and the City to reconsider this project as designed, and warned that we would have no choice but to seek enforcement of the law if our concerns were ignored. Nonetheless, the City and Target proceeded with a project they knew would face opposition in court. In Target’s own words, they admittedly did so “at their own risk.”

The specific plan for this neighborhood was the expression of years of work by the community and the city, and contains incentives for a number of things Mr. Friedman claims to want. If certain developers and city officials find the limitations of the specific plan burdensome, there are ways to change the plan that include all interested voices from the community. What Mr. Friedman dismisses as a “mere formality” and a “pretense” is otherwise known as the law. If construction commenced prior to resolution of the legal challenges, it is not my client’s fault.

Blame whomever you want for the current state of Hollywood, but get your facts straight before you do.

David Bell is a lawyer and a community activist in East Hollywood.

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