The Second District Court of Appeal has issued another ruling in the long-running controversy over the proposed demolition of a garden apartment complex in Venice. The latest ruling allowed both sides in the debate to claim victory.

The court ruled that the City of Los Angeles had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not imposing mitigation measures in conjunction with a permit to demolish five of the apartment buildings. Those mitigation measures — which included photographing buildings and making site plan drawings — were contained in an environmental impact report.

However, in the unpublished portion of its opinion, the court ruled against Lincoln Place tenants. They had argued that the EIR failed to adequately address the historical value of the apartment complex, and that the city should have revised the EIR when new information became available.

Lincoln Place Apartments, located about one mile from Venice Beach, is a collection of 50 L- and U-shaped apartment buildings containing 795 one- and two-bedroom units. The 33-acre project was built in 1951 with green spaces, landscaping and winding streets. Forty years later, the owners proposed a “redevelopment project” that involved demolishing the buildings, and replacing them with 654 condominiums, 52 moderate-income townhouses and 144 low-income apartments.

In 1993, the city published a draft EIR, which concluded that Lincoln Place did not meet the city’s criteria for cultural or historical significance. Only one person, a graduate student, challenged this conclusion. The final EIR maintained the apartment complex lacked historical significance. But, because post-war, multi-family developments had not received much academic study, the EIR recommended mitigation measures. Prior to demolition, the buildings had to be offered for sale and removal to a new location, and photographs and drawings were to be prepared.

In 1995, the city Planning Commission approved the project but was reversed on appeal by the City Council. Seven years of litigation ensued, during which the Second District Court of Appeal ruled that the city’s process for issuing demolition permits on rental properties violated a state law (the Ellis Act) that lets landlords go out of business. (Los Angeles Lincoln Place Investors, Ltd. v. City of Los Angeles, 54 Cal.App.4th 53; see CP&DR Legal Digest, May 1997).

By late 2002, the project was back in the city’s hands. The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee conducted a hearing, at which the tenants said new information had come to light regarding the apartments’ significance. The tenants had learned that Ralph Vaughn had designed Lincoln Place. Vaughn was a well-known African American architect who designed movie sets and celebrities’ homes. Additionally, the California Office of Historic Preservation had nominated Lincoln Place for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (a nomination that the keeper of the National Register later returned to the state for more information). The tenants said the new information required preparation of a revised EIR. Still, the PLUM Committee, and then the City Council, found that the new information was not enough to require a new EIR and approved the project.

At roughly the same time, the landowners applied for permits to demolish five structures on Lake Street. Based on the landowners’ contention that the demolitions were not part of the redevelopment project, the Department of Building and Safety approved the permits without mitigations. A group called the 20th Century Architectural Alliance appealed to the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners, which denied the appeal. The owners subsequently tore down several buildings.

After the City Council’s approval of the project, the tenants association and the architectural alliance filed separate lawsuits. The tenants argued that the EIR was wrong in its conclusion that the buildings were not historically and culturally significant. The architectural alliance contended that granting the Lake Street demolition permits violated CEQA.

Los Angeles County Superior Court judges ruled against both the tenants and the architectural alliance. Both filed appeals, and the Second District consolidated the appeals. The court then upheld the EIR but ordered the city to void the demolition permits.

In the published portion of its ruling, the court rejected the city’s handling of the demolition permits. The city and the property owners argued that the Lake Street demolition permits were not part of the redevelopment project; therefore, compliance with the EIR conditions was not required until construction started.

The court, however, found that the distinction the city and property owners were drawing was “disingenuous at best.”

“[T]he city and the owners cannot have it both ways,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “If the Lake Street demolition is not part of the Lincoln Place redevelopment project, then it requires a CEQA review. If the Lake Street demolition is part of the Lincoln Place redevelopment project then the owners must comply with the conditions on demolition imposed in the project approval or conduct further CEQA review to determine if those conditions are no longer feasible.”

The demolition of existing buildings has always been part of the owners’ plan, the court noted. “Having placed these conditions on the demolition segment of the redevelopment project, the city cannot simply ignore them. Mitigating conditions are not mere expressions of hope,” Johnson wrote.

The court ordered the city not to issue demolition permits for any Lincoln Place structures unless the applicant complies with the EIR conditions or the conditions are modified as part of a supplemental EIR.

In the unpublished part of the opinion, the court upheld the EIR. The court ruled that the EIR and the city’s conclusions regarding the new information were supported by substantial evidence.

Since the advent of the latest rounds of litigation, the property was sold to new investors, who are continuing to pursue demolition but have not revealed construction plans. And three weeks after the Second District ruled, the state Historical Resources Commission determined that Lincoln Place is eligible for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources.

The Case:
Lincoln Place Tenants Association v. City of Los Angeles, No. B172979, 05 C.D.O.S. 6182, 2005 DJDAR 8444. Filed July 13, 2005. Modified August 11, 2005 at 2005 DJDAR 9775.
The Lawyers:
For the tenants association: Susan Brandt-Hawley, (707) 938-3908.
For 20th Century Architectural Alliance: Jan Chatten-Brown, (310) 314-8040.
For the city: Kim Rodgers Westhoff, city attorney’s office, (213) 978-8104.
For real parties in interest: Alan Abshez, Irell & Manella, (310) 277-1010, and Jonathan B. Cole, Nemecek & Cole, (818) 788-9500.