Hollywood Shakes

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

To learn  about an earthquake fault underneath you in Hollywood, you can ask a land developer, a city  planner or a state geologist who has spent a career studying the subject.  You’ll get a somewhat different answer from each one,  illustrating  the confusion that has helped make regulating land development in Los Angeles such a mess.

Much media attention has been focused on another, and  unrelated, development mess—City Councilman Jose Huizar pleading not guilty to bribery, money laundering and other charges resulting from alleged bribes to clear the way for high rises in  downtown Los Angeles.

No such criminality has been alleged in Hollywood, where development is booming.  The web site Curbed Los Angeles mapped more than 30 projects being built or planned for in and around  Hollywood and Vine, the heart of Hollywood. They will add thousands of offices, hotels and apartments, earning untold millions for the developers.

Hollywood development has long interested me, ever since my friend, the late Norton Halper, the greatest of  city hall gadflies, spent hours with me at  Denny’s in Hollywood explaining the injustices of the city benefitting land developers with redevelopment subsidies. I thought he made sense.

More recently, my interest was piqued by a story in the Los Angeles Times by reporters Rong-Gong-Lin and Lorena Iniguez Elebee  on a proposal for 46 and 35 story buildings, Hollywood’s tallest development project called Hollywood Center. Also on the site, at 1720 Vine Street, surrounding the Capitol records tower,  would be two 11-story buildings for low-income seniors. 

The Times story revealed a  letter from the California Geological Survey, the state’s lead earthquake agency, to Los Angeles city planners, raising new  questions about the safety of the Hollywood Center site.  

“These studies strongly support the presence of an active … fault strand entering the eastern Hollywood Center property,” the letter said. “Importantly, the combined data indicate that more than one … fault trace of the Hollywood Fault crosses the proposed project site.” The state also noted a recent U.S. Geological Survey report found four parallel sections of the Hollywood fault identified just east of the property which are believed to extend under the development.

Well-known seismologist Lucy Jones said the California Geological Survey is the gold-standard scientific authority for recognizing the locations of faults in California. “That’s their job,” said Jones, a former chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission and former science advisor for seismic safety for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “And they say the studies they have strongly support the presence of an active fault strand in the property.”

But Philip  Aarons of Millenium Partners, the developer, disagreed.  “It is clear that the data relied upon by the state is significantly inferior in quality to the data acquired from the extensive trenching done on our site,” Aarons said in a statement published in the Times. “We will continue to work diligently with the city to review any and all data with the goal of assuring the construction of the most seismically safe structure in the history of Los Angeles.” Aarons said a new geology report concludes there have been no earthquake faults on the property that have moved since the last Ice Age, “and therefore, the site is safe to build on, according to state and city requirements.” 

I was confused.  So I went online for the city planning department report on Hollywood Center.  When I was a young reporter trying to make sense out of the era’s development fights, planning department staffers showed me how to figure out such reports.  I remembered my lessons well enough to go through much of the 107- page report, looking for the section on earthquakes. 

I found it.  The planners writing the report wondered whether  the project “impacts people or structures to potential substantial adverse effects, including the risk of loss, injury, or death ….” They answered that important question by saying the project would have a “potentially significant impact.” The city planners’ report said, “ the project site is subject to potentially high seismic activity,” a condition that will be further examined in a future environmental impact report.  

In the end, we’re left with three versions—the state geologists’, the land developers’ and the city planning   departments, which is under Mayor Eric Garcetti, a pro-development politician when he represented Hollywood on the city council.  There may be even more versions.  Individual city council members have veto power over projects in their districts.  They have their own staffs and probably their own geologists—and take contributions from developers.

That’s a reason why it’s so hard for residents,  retailers, landlords, and other interested parties to figure out such disputes.  Even the developers,  who should be on top of things, need lobbyists and lawyers to guide them through city hall. That adds up to a first-class mess.

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