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09.16.2010
Neutra Nightmare Shakes Westwood
Fight against student housing project near famed Strathmore Apartments falls short at LA planning commission
A massing study of the proposed project.
Courtesy PPC Landventures

At a rambunctious and disjointed meeting of the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission last night, neighbors, architects, and others made a final effort to halt a large student housing development across the street from Richard Neutra’s famed Strathmore Apartments in Westwood. Opponents have been trying to stop the project for over a year, and this time they failed again.

The scheme, called Grandmarc Westwood, would be located on the corner of Strathmore Drive and Levering Avenue, next to the UCLA campus. Developed by Dallas-based PPC Landventures, and designed by LA-based Togawa Smith Martin, the rectilinear project will contain 31 multibedroom residential units on six floors, arranged in a triangular plan.

Despite a rejection six times by the Westwood Design Review Board (DRB) on the grounds that its bulk, massing, and character were incompatible with the Westwood Community Plan, the project was approved by the LA City Planning Commission on August 12. The vote last night upheld the commission’s ruling, rejecting an appeal by opponents, who call themselves the Friends of Richard Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments.

“It was a deeply disappointing decision,” said Steven Sann, chair of the Westwood Community Council, and an outspoken opponent of the project. “For architects this is a very dangerous precedent. It basically nullifies the power of the Design Review Board,” he said. Such review boards generally do not have final say on development decisions, but their recommendations are often upheld. Sann further argued that the project had been altered after the final DRB rejection, a breach of procedure precipitated by private negotiations between the developer and the city.

Dale Goldsmith, a lawyer for PPC Landventures, considers the case closed. “The planning director determined it was fully compliant,” he said. “This is not about changing the rules.” Thanks largely to input from the DRB, the developer did make some concessions, removing a floor of the project, stepping the building in places, adding more landscape and open space, and breaking it down into two pieces instead of a continuous street wall. Supporters at the meeting praised the project’s LEED aspirations and its ability to fill student housing and affordable housing needs. 

But Sann called the changes “woefully inadequate.” He and other opponents insist the building is still far too large for the neighborhood, that it will box in, overwhelm, and cast shadows on the Strathmore Apartments, and that its wall-like frontages will discourage pedestrian connection. Opponents, who also include architects like Richard Meier, Hitoshi Abe, and Craig Hodgetts, also asserted that the building was an example of “mediocre” design and would cause traffic and parking problems and that the large amount of students in the building would tip the delicate balance of occupants in the area.

“They pulled a bait and switch,” said Michael Webb, an occupant of the Strathmore Apartments (and regular contributor to AN). “It looks slightly different but it still has the same amount of units and it still destroys the scale of the neighborhood.” The planning commission ruled that the building’s bulk is allowable under SB1818, which permits increased density when coupled with affordable housing units. There will be only three units of affordable housing at the Grandmarc.

“Shared housing isn’t the issue; the development isn’t compatible with local plans,” said Stephen Resnick, president of the Westwood Homeowners Association. “It’s just a monster project.” It remains undecided if opponents will be pursuing further legal action to try to derail the project.

Sam Lubell