A September 7 Circling the News musing included a drone photo that showed the amount of parkland that surrounds the Palisades Highlands and more specifically the area where the eldercare building is currently under construction.
I wrote, “With wildfires ranging in California and electrical outages in Pacific Palisades (Alphabet Streets, Highlands and Castellammare areas have all reported outages), the idea of putting an eldercare center in the middle of a very high fire hazard severity zone has many residents expressing concerns.
“Last year there were three fires in the Highlands (August 13, September 30 and October 22), and residents suffered long delays when Palisades Drive, the sole road in and out of the area, was closed to residents.”
Readers were quick with responses.
One wrote, “Why do you call it a “proposed” eldercare facility? Am I nuts, or isn’t it already being built, thanks to the builder’s huge cash infusion into Mike Bonin’s campaign war-chest? Isn’t the decision to destroy the Highlands and block the exits in case of fire/earthquake already playing out?”
A second reader wrote, “Based on your ongoing nonsense about this Eldercare project, I imagine all those folks in the Country Estates shouldn’t live there as that core into the mountain is actually a potential disaster based on your absurd fake news. Who is feeding you this crap, Sue? And you just keep spouting it. Very unprofessional.”
A third commented, “I took particular interest in your last article about the fire threats and the building of the eldercare facility. We have been advocates for fire safety on the fire road that connects the Highlands and Marquez Knolls. One resident even hired a private security guard to protect the area from a proposed ‘bonfire’ gathering. It has been a challenge. To add a facility of those who may be elderly and infirmed in a high fire risk setting is just nuts.”
A fourth wrote, “Regarding THE eldercare facility in Highlands. I think the horse has left the barn. Maybe Mike Bonin has a slick answer to your question.”
Here’s what Palisades residents should know about the project.
First, an appeal was filed on July 15 in Superior Court regarding the construction. The proposed building is too large for the lot and the City knew that fact before the West L.A. Area Planning Commission held its hearing on the matter on April 18, 2018. At the hearing, Commissioners were told by the developer’s attorney that a City “plan checker” would verify all measurements before a building permit was issued. (The morning of that hearing, Associate Zoning Administrator Henry Chu discovered the building was too large per city regulations—exceeding square footage by 10,793 sq. ft.).
Second, at the March 2020 Superior Court hearing, Judge Torribio was told by the City’s attorney that the Department of Building and Safety would ensure the building was in compliance.
“That was not the process the City used,” said Harris Leven, a co-appellant with PPRA on the two recent appeals. “City emails and documents obtained through a Public Records Act request show the decision was taken out of the hands of the ‘plan checker’ at Building and Safety, and given back to Associate Zoning Administrator Henry Chu at the Department of City Planning, who in turn deferred to a written analysis from the developer’s attorney.”
Third, at that Superior Court hearing, residents learned for the first time that the developer ( Palisades Drive LLC) planned to install a public bistro on the ground floor and a 280-ft.-long, 10-ft.-high retaining wall. On August 18 this year, two appeals were filed with the L.A. Department of Building and Safety challenging the issuance of permits for the building and the wall.
In an May 15, 2020 interview on Nextdoor betweem Councilman Mike Bonin and the Santa Monica Mirror Media Group, Bonin said, “I do not think we should be adding more housing to High Fire Severity Zones because it’s inviting disaster.”
The Palisades Highlands is in a High Fire Severity Zone (as is the proposed development at the former Jack-in-the-Box location on Sunset near PCH ).
Harris Leven noted that Bonin lobbied for the eldercare development despite the fact that 96 seniors would be housed there and would have to be transported out if there’s a brush fire.
“And Mike personally lobbied a Coastal Commissioner to vote for the facility despite the fact that the same Commissioner clearly stated on the Coastal Commission’s website that she did not want such lobbying,” Leven said.
Although there were numerous petitions and local groups opposed to the size of the eldercare project, not the use, Bonin contacted a member of the Coastal Commission, Mary Luevano, who acknowledged the ex-parte communication with Bonin at the July 11, 2018, Coastal meeting. “He just wanted to let me know he is in favor of the project and most people in the community are in favor of it and that we need it,” Luevano said.
A May 15, 2020 L.A. Times editorial stated, “The unwritten understanding in Los Angeles is that council districts are fiefdoms over which council members have sole discretion to make real estate development decisions, including whether a project gets a tax break or an exemption from land-use rules.’”
Leven told CTN, “That last phrase pretty much explains why the City has ignored the fact that the proposed facility in the Highlands is as much as 20 percent larger than the Planning and Zoning Code allows and has outdoor areas that are not allowed under the law.”
Why would Bonin go against building rules and public sentiment to place seniors in a high very high fire severity zone?
Palisades Drive LLC (Rony and Moshe Shram) has spent close to $500,000 with the lobbying firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP.
On February 4, 2016, under Lobbying Fundraising on the L.A. Ethics Committee website, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell is recorded as giving $20,848 to Mike Bonin for City Council . The same day $700 is given to “Mike Bonin for City Council 2013 Officeholder Account ”
That same day in 2016, Benjamin M. Reznik, identified as a lobbyist with Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, donated $20,848 to Mike Bonin for City Council 2017 . He also gave $700 to Bonin’s Officeholder account.
A lobbyist can pool funds from several clients, solicit from friends and family, or entice employees to contribute (up to a maximum of $700 per person) and present them to a councilman. A councilman might be more likely to remember a sizable donation.
Bonin has received at least $43,096 from this lobbying firm, according to L.A. Ethics.
Shram’s 64,646-sq.-ft. eldercare project in the Palisades Highlands, which includes two levels of underground parking and four stories above it, went through the L.A. City Planning system from filing to partial approval in five months.
According to the City of Los Angeles Zimas ( L.A. Department of Planning public service website, visit:zimas.lacity.org), the project was filed with City Planning on June 1, 2017 and was partially approved by October 4, 2017. It received final approval on January 26, 2018.
CTN sent an email to City Planning and Chief External Affairs Officer Yeghig L. Keshishian about the proposed building size in 2019, and he responded on November 21:
“The project’s permitted buildable area was discussed during the deliberations of the project at the West LA Area Planning Commission meeting,” he said. “Among others, it was raised by one of the appellants.
“The applicant did not however seek a deviation from the zoning code to allow a larger building than what would be allowed by-right,” Keshishian said. “The applicant will need to demonstrate compliance with the zoning regulations at the time they apply for a building permit.”
The Pacific Palisades Community Council Land Use Committee was also not informed of the variance in code. According to the PPCC’s website: “It is PPCC’s policy to review those projects only where variances or other code waivers are requested by the applicant, or when there is substantial community interest in a particular project.”
The PPCC never discussed a waiver. The eldercare project has not been revisited by the Community Council.
(Editor’s note: Readers may remember the years-long controversy involving the Beglari house. Local Attorney Keith Turner wrote a story titled “Challenging a ‘McMansion’: The Infamous Rustic Canyon (Belari) House” that was published by Circling the News on January 13, 2020. Visit: https://www.circlingthenews.com/challenging-a-mc…on-beglari-house/)