Second District Finds for Respondents on All Counts, Upholding EIR for “Iconic Gateway” Project in West Hollywood

In Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (2017) ­___ Cal.App.5th.___, the Second Appellate District upheld the trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR’s treatment of alternatives was sufficient and that the city adequately responded to comments.

In 2014, the city certified an EIR for a mixed–use development in the Melrose Triangle section of West Hollywood. The project was the product of city incentives to redevelop the area in order to create a unified site design with open space, pedestrian access, and an iconic “gateway” building to welcome visitors and promote economic development. The EIR concluded that a significant and unavoidable impact would result from the demolition of a building eligible for listing as a California historic resource.

One alternative would have preserved the building in its entirety, by reducing and redesigning the project. The preservation alternative was ultimately rejected as infeasible because it was inconsistent with project objectives, and would eliminate or disrupt the project’s critical design elements.

After circulating the draft EIR, the project’s architects developed a site design which incorporated the building’s façade and mandated this design as a condition of approval. Furthermore, a subsequent fire destroyed 25 percent of the building, but left the façade intact. The final EIR and conditions were approved in 2014. Petitioners immediately filed suit.

In the court below, petitioner argued that the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative was inadequate, the city did not respond to public comments, and that the city’s finding that the alternative was infeasible was not supported by substantial evidence. The respondents prevailed on all claims and petitioner appealed.

Finding for respondents, the court reiterated the Laurel Heights standard that an analysis of alternatives does not require perfection, only that the EIR provide sufficient information to support a reasonable range of alternatives. The court rejected petitioner’s contention that the EIR was required to include a conceptual drawing of the preservation alternative. Furthermore, the EIR’s statement that preservation of the building would preclude construction of other parts of the project was self-explanatory and did not require additional analysis. The EIR’s use of estimates to calculate how the preservation alternative would reduce the project’s footprint did not create ambiguities that would confuse the public. Such imprecision is simply inherent in the use of estimates.

The court also found that the city’s responses to the three comments cited by the petitioner were made in good faith and demonstrated reasoned analysis.  The court reiterated that a response is not insufficient when it cross-references relevant sections of the draft EIR, and that the level of detail required in a response can vary. Here, the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and the President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles opined in comments that the building could be preserved while achieving the project’s objectives. The city adequately responded to these comments by referencing, and expanding upon, the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative, where this option was considered. The last comment was of a general nature, so the city’s brief, general response was appropriate.

Finally, the court found sufficient evidence to support the city’s finding that the preservation alternative was infeasible. An alternative is infeasible when it cannot meet project objectives or when policy considerations render it impractical or undesirable. An agency’s determination of infeasibility is presumed correct and entitled to deference, if supported by substantial evidence in the record. The court found that the city’s conclusion that the alternative is infeasible was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Development plans, photographs, and testimony from senior planning staff support the city’s conclusion that retaining the building and reducing the project would not fulfill the project objectives of creating a unified site design, promoting pedestrian uses, and encouraging regional economic development.  That another conclusion could have be reached did not render the city’s decision flawed.

A consistent theme underlying the court’s decision was the city’s clear goal of revitalizing the entire site, in order to create a functional and attractive gateway for West Hollywood. Critical to the project’s success was removing the specific building that the petitioner sought to preserve. The court appeared reluctant to overcome such a strong mandate by flyspecking the EIR’s analysis of this acknowledged significant impact.