A Very “Hesitant” Planning Commission Denies Appeal of Petersen Facade

Petersen CDO Wilshire Elevation

The September 10, 2013 Central Area Planning Commission hearing on the appeal of the Planning Director’s approval of the new Petersen Automotive Museum facade had a cliff-hanging ending when two commissioners reluctantly joined the third commissioner and voted to uphold the approval and deny the appeal. Both Commissioner Chanchanit Martorell and Commissioner Samantha Millman – who were visibly uncomfortable when a dizzying set of motions and procedural maneuvers left them with no choice but to vote down the appeal – used the word “hesitant” in explaining their actions.

MMRA President James O’Sullivan filed the appeal on the grounds that the Petersen façade was a radical departure from the guidelines and standards of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District [CDO]. The CDO was created to preserve the unique historical context of Miracle Mile and approved by the City Council in 2004.

A key objective of the CDO is to create a pedestrian friendly environment in the Miracle Mile. The Petersen Museum has never maintained a pedestrian entrance on Wilshire Boulevard and didn’t include one in the proposal they submitted to renovate their exterior – nor did their proposal even include a sign identifying the museum on the Wilshire side.

In his appeal O’Sullivan hammered the Petersen for continuing to turn their back to Museum Row and criticized the Planning Director for not mandating a Wilshire Boulevard entrance when he approved the façade. O’Sullivan’s point had obviously caused concern within the Planning Department that it would give the commission good cause to uphold the appeal because the lack of a Wilshire entrance and signage is a flagrant violation of the CDO. At the very beginning of the hearing planning staff indicated that – although they were recommending that the appeal by denied – they had additional conditions to add to the Director’s approval. Those conditions turned out to be that a Wilshire entrance and signage be stipulated.

The Petersen representatives maintained that the new façade was a “Twenty-First Century interpretation” of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. This was rebuffed by Commissioner Martorell, “I am very familiar with Art Deco, I appreciate Art Deco, I am passionately in love with Art Deco . . . [This is] Not what I would personally consider Art Deco myself.”

In his presentation to the commission O’Sullivan pointed out that this was the first time in its thirty-year existence that the MMRA has filed an appeal. “We always find a way to compromise on projects,” he stated. “But the Petersen submitted this and got it approved by the City without any community outreach. We were kept in the dark.”

In a brief that O’Sullivan submitted he demonstrated how the Petersen and planning staff had cherry-picked their way though the CDO – stretching certain design guidelines and ignoring others to demonstrate compliance. At the hearing he warned the commission that if they upheld the Director’s Approval it would virtually nullify the CDO by establishing a precedence that would allow other developers and building owners to sue the City if they were forced to strictly comply with the CDO.

“It would have been better if the Petersen had asked for a complete exemption from the CDO or more honorable if they had asked the stakeholders to revise the CDO rather than to twist and torture it to get approval for their project,” said O’Sullivan. “This will cause irreparable harm to the CDO.”

Despite a roster of supporters endorsing the Petersen façade and the Director’s interpretation of the CDO – including a surprise appearance by Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose joviality trivialized the proceeding – everyone in the hearing room was caught by surprise when it came time for the vote.

Commissioner Young Kim introduced a motion denying O’Sullivan’s appeal and supporting the Director’s Approval with the additional conditions regarding the stipulation of a Wilshire entrance and signage – but it did not receive a second. That is when it became apparent that Commissioners Martorell and Millman had been receptive to O’Sullivan’s presentation and had reservations about the façade’s compatibility with the CDO.

Absent a second to the motion some confusion ensued. It was explained that without a second the motion would fail and the appeal would be automatically denied – and the original Director’s approval would stand, which did not stipulate a Wilshire entrance. So, Commissioner Kim re-introduced the motion. Finally, a soft-spoken Commissioner Millman offered: “A very hesitant second.”

When the vote was taken Millman and Kim voted in favor of the motion, but Commissioner Martorell [right] prefaced her vote with: “I have to say that I find the design somewhat problematic and . . . I think that there could be another design that’s more emblematic of this area, and I just have problems, so I just say no. I vote no.”

But then Martorell found herself painted in a procedural corner: the only way the commission could insure that the Petersen would have a Wilshire entrance and signage was to unanimously vote in favor of the motion.

“That [the lack of a Wilshire entrance] would be a loss to the community, irrespective of the design element. This is difficult. I don’t agree with this design,” Martorell said before changing her vote to affirm the motion and deny the appeal.

The MMRA Board of Directors, which endorsed and fully supported O’Sullivan’s appeal, is considering other options to preserve the integrity of the CDO.

MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon, who attending the appeal hearing, remarked, “Jim didn’t win the appeal, but he personally unlocked the Wilshire entrance to the Petersen Museum. That’s something we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years.”

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