Developing Boystown may (or may not) happen

February 4, 2013

An artist's concept of what a mega-development at Santa Monica and San Vicente Boulevards might look like if built.

The long sought after mixed-use development sought by city officials to enliven the “dead” side of Boystown’s nightlife, the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard between San Vicente and Hancock where a METRO bus depot and the Sheriff’s branch station now sit, may come to fruition.

That is, if the project pencils out.

According to public records of the Los Angeles MTA’s Planning and Programming Committee’s January 16 meeting, that agency entered into a two-year exclusive negotiating agreement with the owner of the next-door neighbor, Charles Cohen of the Pacific Design Center (PDC) and his development group, Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation of California (CBRCC), to plan a mixed-use development atop a 280-space, three-level underground garage for MTA bus storage, maintenance and operations.

The proposal, while still in its infancy, posits placing 400,000 square feet of commercial office space in two high-rise towers along with 600,000 square feet of residential/hotel space, 120,000 square feet of retail shops, a 2,500-seat movie theater complex and an 800-seat open amphitheater.

The MTA now uses the site for a major bus depot, and would continue to use it as such.

Mr. Cohen’s father passed away in late January, and so could not speak to WeHo News, but a source close to the negotiations who would speak only on condition of anonymity, told WeHo News, “This is all much ado about nothing.

“In order for a developer to move forward on any project,” they said, “you have to do six-figures’ worth of architectural plans, drawings and project plans.

"Typically," they said, "before a developer makes that kind of investment, they will want assurances that, ‘if you ever do approve this project, I get to develop it.’”

The source said that nothing at all had been agreed upon nor had anything been approved – only the rights to develop plans to be presented to the stakeholders for approval.

The shaded area  in this aerial map of West Hollywood's westside circa 1922 shows the massive imprint of the former rail yard that put WeHo on the map. Photo courtesy Arcadia Publishing Company's "Images of America: West Hollywood by WeHo News editor Ryan Gierach.

That would mean doing an environmental impact review (EIR), going to the nearby residents and businesses for their input, returning to the city and METRO and the County (who controls the sheriff’s station), to fit all the parts together into a whole.

In order for the agreement to move forward, METRO operations branch needed assurances that the bus depot could continue to operate at planned capacity during and after the construction – that is why an artist’s concept went into the report, said the source.

“They wanted to know what it would look like,” they said.

The rail yard was the center of the vast Los Angeles & Pacific Railroad, later known as the Pcific Electric, which ran the famous Red Cars. Photo courtesy Arcadia Publishing Company's "Images of America: West Hollywood by WeHo News editor Ryan Gierach.

The right to negotiate “fully protects the city of West Hollywood,” according to the source, “because it makes the city the lead agency for the EIR and the City of West Hollywood needs to approve all land use entitlements, which includes height, floor area ratio (FAR), all of it before the MTA could approve any project,” and a single spade of dirt gets dug.

If approved by the city after the EIR, the project would proceed in stages, beginning with the new underground bus terminal.

In addition, the proposal includes space for an expansion of the Sheriff’s station to 50,000 square feet.

Although the city has expressed interest in also expanding city hall and placing it on the site, the proposal makes no mention of it.

The city allocated $212,000 for a feasibility study to expand the Sheriff’s Branch Station and including a new City Hall on the space.

The Sheriff’s station was built in 1980 to accommodate 110 personnel – it now holds 183 plus a volunteer force that numbers 75, forcing deputies to store gear in their personal autos because the facility cannot accommodate it.

Under the proposed plan, the Sheriff's branch station would also be expanded.

”Several years ago, as the PDC broke ground on the RedBuilding and Mr. Cohen discussed with METRO easement issues relating to that construction, it occurred to him to inquire with MTA about developing the site to complete the PDC campus.

In November, 2011, the city’s Director of Community Development, Anne MacIntosh, sent MTA a letter saying that the city supported the redevelopment of the site, because, according to that source, “they wouldn’t have gone forward if the city didn’t express a desire to see the site redeveloped. [The city] didn’t weigh in on uses, didn’t weigh in on a developer; they just said, yeah, it would be nice to redevelop this site.

Council member John Duran has long advocated for a use of the site that would add nightlife to that “dead” side of Boystown’s famous stretch, as well as condos, apartments and office space to enliven the area during the day.

The site is a part of the original raison d'être for the existence of West Hollywood, when in 1896 General Moses Sherman bought 5.6 acres of land at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and San Vicente Blvd. for the headquarters, car barn, shop, and powerhouse for his new railroad, the Los Angeles-Pacific.

The current City Hall is also filling up; the current budget has money in it for a feasibility study with the intent to place a new civic administrative center on the site in question.

The agreement comes after years of brainstorming on how to best use the expanse of space in the center of one of the densest parts of the Los Angeles basin.That rail yard grew to nearly 25 acres, of which the PDC now sits on 14, leaving 10.9 acres on which the current bus depot and sheriff station stand.

In 2008, the METRO board commissioned a study into possible transit-oriented mixed-use projects, but found that none satisfied the requirement to make a profit.

To plan the project, Cohen Brothers hired Gruen Associates architects, which designed the PDC under the leadership of renowned architect Cesar Pelli.

According to the agreement, the site’s development would further METRO’s goals of: (i) promoting and enhancing transit ridership; (ii) enhancing and protecting the transportation corridor and its environs; (iii) enhancing the land use and economic development goals of the surrounding community and conforming to applicable local and regional development plans (as such plans may be amended from time to time); and (iv) generating value to METRO based on a fair market return on public ownership and investment.

Still, in the end, it may not happen after all if the project fails to pencil out.

“It may not happen, not if mixed-use aspect of the fails to outweigh the public uses proposed for the property,” according to WeHo News’ source. “You still have to have the bus yard there; you still have to have the sheriff’s station there and maybe a new city hall. If the office space, housing and commercial space cannot pick up the slack and there is no way to profit, then the development won’t even happen.”