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.”

Appeal of Petersen Museum Facade Denied

MMRA Exploring Other Options…

On September 10, 2013 the Central Area Planning Commission denied an appeal filed by James O’Sullivan, President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA], regarding the new facade for the Petersen Automotive Museum. The three-member Commission voted to sustain the Director’s determination for a Community Overlay Approval of the facade.

O’Sullivan filed an appeal on grounds that the new facade would violate the guidelines of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District [CDO], which was approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2004 to provide design standards for public and private development in commercial zoned areas along Wilshire Boulevard. O’Sullivan’s appeal was endorsed by the MMRA Board of Directors, who share his concern that approval of the Petersen facade will set a precedence that will nullify the CDO. The MMRA is carefully exploring all available options in order to protect the CDO.

For additional information read:

MMRA President Appeals City’s Approval of Petersen Museum Facade, Miracle Mile Residential Association Newsletter, September 2013

MMRA Appeals Petersen Museum Facade

[The following three articles are reprinted from the September 1, 2013 edition of the Miracle Mile Residential Association Newsletter. To see the articles in their original format with accompanying graphics, maps, and links to documents referenced herein click HERE.]

MMRA PRESIDENT APPEALS PETERSEN FACADE

James O’Sullivan, President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA], has appealed the Department of Planning’s approval of plans by the Petersen Automotive Museum to erect a new facade on their building on the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

O’Sullivan appealed the decision on grounds that the facade violates the design guidelines of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District [CDO] and ignores the CDO mandate that the museum maintain a pedestrian entrance on Wilshire Boulevard during operating hours, allowing the Petersen to continue to turn its back to Museum Row.

Plans for the facade as well as the interior renovations of the museum were officially announced by Petersen officials on August 18 at the Concours d’Elegance classic car show in Pebble Beach – but renderings of the controversial façade were leaked to the media in early July, accompanied by stories that the museum was selling off a substantial portion of its collection.

Alarmed by this situation, the MMRA requested a meeting with representatives of the Petersen. O’Sullivan and MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon met with Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Museum, and their planning consultant, Melody Kanschat, on July 28. At this meeting O’Sullivan and Hixon were surprised to learn that not only had plans for the facade been already submitted to the Department of Planning – without any notice to the community – but that the plans had been approved by the City ten days earlier, on July 18. They also learned that the decision would become final unless an appeal was filed by August 2.

With only a few days to act – and with no time to call for a Board of Director’s meeting – O’Sullivan filed an individual appeal on behalf of the MMRA. The Central Area Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on the appeal on September 10.

The MMRA Board of Directors adopted a motion approving O’Sullivan’s appeal at its August meeting. The board is very troubled by the fact that the community was kept in the dark about the Petersen’s plans. The MMRA is committed to community involvement in the decision-making process (this newsletter is an example of that commitment). We are a consensus-based organization – but it is difficult to arrive at consensus if our residents don’t have all the facts in a timely manner.

The MMRA is also gravely concerned that the “jungle gym” design of the Petersen façade will be an attractive nuisance. The ribbon design reaching all the way down to the sidewalk will provide an easy foothold to secure climbers and will tempt young people and graffiti artists to scale the building.

The attractive nuisance doctrine states that a landowner may be held liable for the injuries to minors trespassing on their property who are unable to appreciate the risks posed by an object or condition. By approving this design, the City of Los Angeles – and its taxpayers – could share financial exposure for damages should a minor be injured climbing the Petersen facade.

The MMRA also fears that the Petersen facade will be a magnet for taggers and graffiti artists, who are notorious for the dare-devil risks they assume to prominently place their “tags.” They have been known to precariously hang over speeding traffic in order to tag freeway signs. High visibility is the supreme objective of taggers; the Petersen’s location on a busy intersection at the western gateway to the Miracle Mile presents an ideal canvas for such vandalism.

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WHEN A CIRCLE IS A SQUARE

A geometry lesson from the Los Angeles Planning Department

by James O’Sullivan, President, MMRA

The Los Angeles Planning Department has once again made a mumbo jumbo finding to justify a project it wants to approve. On July 18 the Director of Planning issued an opinion about the proposed new facade of the Petersen Automotive Museum that strains credulity. But this is par for how the City operates. I don’t have anything against the Petersen – I’ve taken many visitors there – but, in my humble opinion, the new facade design is just plain ugly. It reminds me of the psychedelic boarders of an old Grateful Dead poster. It’s definitely “trippy” – and it seems no more relevant to an automotive museum than it does to the Miracle Mile.

There is a Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay [CDO] that many of us worked for years to get approved and it is supposed to make sure that these kinds of designs do not happen in the Miracle Mile. However, the Petersen and the City did not deem it necessary to share this new design with anyone in the Miracle Mile, they just handled it in secret and approved it. And, love it or hate it, it really irks me that the community was shut out of this process. So, on behalf of the MMRA, I appealed the approval of the Petersen’s new facade and look forward to everyone – pro and con – having the opportunity to weigh in on this project when it goes before the Central Planning Commission on September 10.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – particularly when it comes to modern architecture – but you can read the CDO yourself and see that it contains clear language about horizontal and vertical design elements.

Most people would agree that a circle is not a square and a horizontal line is not the same thing as a vertical line. That is not the case for the Los Angeles Director of Planning. After examining the application from the Petersen, the Director of Planning called horizontal lines vertical. Actually, what he said was that the “facade upgrade consists of installing a series of stainless-steel curvilinear ribbons. . .which provides a new horizontal and vertical rhythm and provides a sense of scale to the facade.”

Horizontal and vertical rhythm? Is he describing the Petersen facade or judging an episode of Dancing with the Stars? That is just plain nonsense. How can you look at the renderings of the facade and reconcile it to what it says in the CDO?

The approval stated, “The project has been reviewed by staff and has been found to be in substantial conformance with the design guidelines.” I have learned over the years that when anyone from the City mentions substantial conformance it means they will deem that a square is a circle if it suits their logic. The guidelines that that City must implement state that plans must conform to the CDO. Either they do or they don’t. There is no such language as “substantial conformance” to be found in the CDO.

The Planning Director admits that the Petersen design doesn’t really fit the Miracle Mile when he says: “Although the facade is very different from the surrounding commercial buildings, the unique facade design as proposed revitalizes the building and at the same time introduces an aesthetic design that enhances the area. It is consistent with the innovative modern architecture design present in the nearby museum uses (my italics).”

Normally, I would take the word “present” to mean LACMA West, the Bing, Hammer, Ahmanson, Broad, or Resnick galleries at LACMA or the A+D museum next door. But he seems to be saying that the Petersen facade is “consistent” to proposed designs that have yet to be approved, let alone built, such as the Zumthor “ink spot” redo of LACMA or the glass bubble theater the Academy Museum plans to build on the north side of the former May Company building.

And, to top it all off, the Planning Department seems completely oblivious to public safety. A child or teenager looking at the façade won’t see “innovative modern architecture” – they’ll see a giant jungle gym. The design screams: “Climb me!” And they will. And there will be injuries and lawsuits. And the taxpayers will find themselves on the hook for a share of the damages because the Planning Department approved a shiny, four-story attractive nuisance.

Although a design like the Petersen facade was never anticipated by those of us on the citizen advisory committee who created the Miracle Mile CDO, it is exactly what we were trying to prevent. The CDO was a product of community input and consensus. The approval of the Petersen facade was a well-executed end run around the community.

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What is the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District?

In 2004 the Los Angeles City Council approved the creation of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay Guidelines and Standards [CDO]. The CDO covers all commercially zoned parcels and structures along Wilshire Boulevard between Sycamore Avenue on the east to Fairfax Avenue on the west, with the exception of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Hancock Park.

The purpose of the CDO is to enhance the physical and aesthetic qualities of this distinctive section of Wilshire Boulevard. It addressed one of the key tenants of the City’s General Plan Framework to “determine the appropriate urban design elements at the neighborhood level” in order to create a more pleasant, pedestrian-oriented environment.

The impetus to create the CDO was sparked by a rash of new construction in the early-2000s that was inconsistent with the pattern of historically significant architecture in the Miracle Mile. Some of these new buildings paid little attention to the design of their Wilshire facades. They did not have open pedestrian entrances on Wilshire Boulevard, their display windows were blacked-out, and their signage was out-of-scale. These new buildings visually degraded the character and unique identity of the community [such as the Smart & Final store].

At that time, the preservation and restoration of the Miracle Mile’s mainly Art Deco historical buildings were also threatened and it became apparent the only way to establish standards for the rehabilitation of these unique historic resources was by means of a CDO. Hence, the CDO created two sets of architectural guidelines, one for new and existing developments and one specific to historic structures that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the former May Company building.

In its recommendation supporting the creation of the CDO, the Department of Planning wrote that the CDO “will ensure that future development provide a sense of place in terms of design by applying unique architectural guidelines and standards developed for this area, and will help prevent the development of structures with exterior design that is not compatible with the surrounding community.”

A citizen advisory committee was formed to work with the Department of Planning to craft the CDO. The committee consisted of residents and business and property owners, who were charged with making the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard a more pleasant and attractive street and to address issues of urban design, land use compatibility, and quality of life issues. James O’Sullivan, President of the MMRA, served on the committee and Renee Weitzer, Land Use and Planning Deputy for Councilmember Tom Labonge, was in regular attendance.

The CDO that emerged through the hard work of the citizen advisory committee, as approved by the City, mandates in its introduction that “All projects within the boundaries of the Miracle Mile CDO District should comply with the following Design Guidelines and Development Standards.”

Q & A:

Why was the Los Angeles County Museum [LACMA] exempted from the Miracle Mile CDO?

LACMA is a county institution located in Hancock Park, which is a county park. The CDO is under the purview of the City of Los Angeles, whose regulations do not apply to Los Angeles County property.

The MMRA is particularly puzzled by the Planning Department’s approval of the Petersen facade on the grounds that “it is consistent with innovative modern architecture design present in nearby museum uses.” The logic of this statement in ambiguous – it appears to be a reference to LACMA, given that it is the only nearby museum with innovative modern buildings present. But as explained above, LACMA is not legally bound by the guidelines and standards of the Miracle Mile CDO. If, indeed, they are referring to LACMA, then the Planning Department found that the Petersen facade was consistent to the CDO by comparing it to a museum that is exempt from the CDO. This slight of hand ignores the purpose, intent, and spirit of the CDO.

Does the CDO prohibit modern architecture?

No, not at all. The CDO does establish practical guidelines regarding setback, having a Wilshire pedestrian entrance, avoiding garage driveway entrances on Wilshire, etcetera – as well as general design standards regarding massing, architectural elements, and building materials – but it doesn’t require that new projects be constructed in an Art Deco or any other particular style.

Who enforces the CDO?

The Los Angeles City Department of Planning. But – as evidenced by their endorsement of the Petersen facade – it is obvious that anything goes with the Department of Planning.

The MMRA recently requested that our Councilmember, Tom Labonge, reinstate the Miracle Mile CDO citizen advisory board – but he refused. He maintains that the Department of Planning is solely franchised to implement the CDO. It is a Catch 22 situation for the Miracle Mile. The Department of Planning is in charge of implementing guidelines and standards that they feel free to redefine at will – without any public input.

Neither the Department of Planning nor the Petersen Museum did any public outreach before the plan for the new facade was submitted and approved by the City. The MMRA only accidentally learned of the project after it had been signed off on – and only a few days away from the expiration of the appeal process.

Since the filing of an appeal by MMRA President James O’Sullivan, the Petersen has belatedly begun its outreach campaign. And it is only because the appeal was filed that the public will have any input on this project at all.

Obviously, since the Department of Planning has apparently abdicated its responsibility to enforce the CDO, it falls upon the MMRA to fight for its implementation. To some the CDO is an imperfect document, but it was created by consensus to address the concerns of the community. The MMRA fully supports efforts to improve the CDO or to correct any of its defects. But it cannot be casually dismissed; it is the law in the Miracle Mile.

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