The Commissioner — Summer 2011
West Hollywood, California, Planning Commission
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
While the auditorium isn't always packed, a full house is not uncommon at meetings of the planning commission in this California city. "West Hollywood is an extraordinarily politically energized and engaged community," says Marc Yeber, a planning commissioner who recently stepped down as chair. "We also draw a lot of people from outside the city who live in close proximity to our entertainment districts and are concerned about potential impacts."
West Hollywood — also known as WeHo — is home to more than 36,000 residents and the legendary 1.2-mile Sunset Strip. WeHo is bordered by the City of Los Angeles to the east and Beverly Hills to the west.
The seven planning commissioners, who must be city residents, serve two-year terms. Five are direct appointees of council members and two are appointed at large by consensus of the council. "We're in a period of transition," says planning manager John Keho, AICP. Three new members joined the commission between May and July. There are no term limits.
While there is no specific training for new planning commissioners, Keho meets with each individually, orienting them, providing information, and answering questions. "Many come to us having already served on other city boards," he says, "and they have attended the city's annual training for commissioners." That training focuses on legal issues and the Brown Act, California's open meetings law.
A background in planning or development is not a prerequisite to service. Planning commissioners, who may not be city employees, work in fields such as property management, architecture, advertising, and law. Commissioners receive a small stipend — $50 per meeting — to cover expenses.
Of the city's numerous boards, the planning commission has the highest profile, says Keho, due to the potential ramifications of its decisions. Its twice-monthly meetings, which can run four or five hours, are televised and well watched. The city's website archives the cablecasts.
The planning commission is the decision-making body for new development, demolition, conditional use permits, and certification of environmental impact reports. It serves in an advisory capacity on legislative issues such as zoning ordinance changes and plan adoption. Three commissioners serve on a design review subcommittee that, while it has no legal authority, offers opinions and gives advice to applicants.
The city council relies on commissioners to thoroughly vet all applications. "Council always wants to hear what the commission has to say," Keho notes, "although it doesn't mean they'll come down the same way."
While there are instances where the council will overrule a commission decision, it is not common, says Yeber. This, he believes, is due to the high level of commitment and dedication among commissioners, most of whom devote 20 to 30 hours monthly to their service.
Once considered a "quaint little urban village" when it incorporated in 1984, "it (West Hollywood) has become a dynamic mini-metropolis," says Marc Yeber, former chair and current member of the planning commission. At 1.9 square miles, WeHo is completely built out. "Pretty much every development in the city is infill so we're looking at an intensification of use and the impact it will have on traffic, parking availability, and the like," he says. "We walk a fine line — wanting to work with developers and applicants but also to minimize potential impacts."
Home to the Sunset Strip, eclectic Santa Monica Boulevard, and The Avenues (an art, fashion and design district), WeHo is renowned for its nightlife, shopping, dining, and luxurious spas. On weekends, its 36,000 population "can swell to three times that number," says Yeber.
"Bringing more people — occupants or visitors — means more traffic and potential crime issues," Yeber says. "Our projects are never insignificant. They are huge. And while some may look good on paper, they can have impacts that are hard to get around."
As WeHo has evolved, some have begun to wonder if it has lost sight of its roots. "There's a struggle for the soul of the city," says Yeber.
Concern over renters' rights, gay rights, and seniors' rights gave rise to the city, says Yeber. "Since then, we've become the dynamic heartbeat of Los Angeles in a lot of ways. But the question arises: Are we losing our working-class population in place of new residents who can easily afford a couple-million-dollar condo?"
"Because we're fully built up and rent controlled, anytime rental buildings are demolished and replaced by condos that's an issue," says John Keho, AICP, the city's planning manager. "The economy has been down recently but people are worried that it (condo development) will go back to what was before 2007."
The loss of rental units is a concern for seniors, particularly those on fixed incomes. "From a senior's standpoint, are they slowly being pushed away or out due to the energy being injected into city?" wonders Yeber.
Within the city's gay population "differences in values are creating a struggle. Some are stuck in the gay community of the '80s, but today there are many gay couples with kids," says Yeber. "We have nightclubs with go-go boys you can see from the sidewalk. So here's mom and mom or dad and dad walking with little Johnny past a go-go boy or girl and there's this struggle."
Sunset Strip billboards have long been a part of the city's identity. "With their extra-large scale, unique designs, and symbolic reference to movie glamour, the billboards are a significant part of the street's visual character," notes the Sunset Specific Plan. An increasing number of billboard requests, many for signage not currently allowed, has the commission asking: "How many billboards can the Strip contain and is there ever a point where there are too many billboards?" says Keho.
Through the use of development agreements — under which the city will receive significant monthly fees — new and replacement billboards are being contemplated on numerous rooftops along Sunset Boulevard. The planning commission, acting in an advisory capacity, recently approved several requests, but some commissioners think this deviates from the 1996 plan.