Last night’s meeting of the Greater Wilshire Neighborood Council’s Land Use Committee had an unusually short agenda, but that left time for some fairly lengthy discussions of the two main agenda items – an update of the Starbucks at Highland and Willoughby, and a new apartment building proposed for the NE corner of Larchmont and Rosewood.
859 N. Highland Ave
This is the location of the drive-through Starbucks that opened in 2015 as an adaptive reuse of an historic Texaco gas station. According to project representative Elizabeth Valerio, the store has been very successful since its opening (in fact, she said, even “more succesful than expected”)…but now, after five years of operation, it’s time for a an update, especially to the vehicle flow at the site, which can sometimes leave customer traffic backed up on Willoughby Ave.
Valerio said Starbucks would like to make some changes in three areas. These include the outdoor patio, to improve the experience for walk-up customers, as well as the interior workspace, to improve employees’ workflow and service capabilities. But the major change the owners are proposing, Valerio said, is the addition of a second drive-through traffic lane on the property, to leave fewer cars waiting on Willoughby Ave. The second driveway would run parallel to the first, and they would merge at a central service point. Valerio said this would not only improve traffic flow on Willoughby, but also allow Starbucks to position a second employee taking orders from cars in the second drive-through line, to further speed up service.
Valerio stressed that last night’s presentation of the renovation plans was very preliminary, and she promised to return soon with more detailed plans and drawings after an application has been filed with the city. After the presentation, committee member comments were largely favorable, with several people noting they have indeed seen cars backed up at the site, especially during morning and evening rush hours, so would welcome changes that might mitigate the problem. Committee members also commented, however, that it will be important to seek input on the proposal from nearby neighbors as the plans take shape. Due to the preliminary nature of the presentation, no votes were taken or official recommendations made.
500 N. Larchmont Blvd.
The majority of last night’s meeting was dedicated to this proposal, which involves two parcels at the NE corner of Larchmont Bvd. and Rosewood Ave. One lot currently holds an office building that’s home to an insurance office and the space most recently occupied by Bokka Nails. The second parcel holds a small bungalow that is currently home to the Snooknuk child “edutainment” and party venue.
According to developer representative Matthew Hayden, the proposed project, which would be built under the city’s Transit Oriented Communities guidelines, would replace the existing buildings with a 56-foot tall, five-story apartment building with 21 units – seven with one bedroom each and 14 with two bedrooms, with two units set aside for Extremely Low Income tenants.
There would also be 21 at-grade vehicle parking spaces and 24 bike parking spaces. The building’s main entrance would be on Rosewood Ave., and the developers will try to preserve the two mature street trees in front of the property. Outdoor space would include both private apartment balconies and a 4th floor balcony available to all tenants, but no roof deck. Building materials will include stucco and fiber cement panels, and the building will step down on the back side, to better meet the R1 residential area behind it.
Unfortunately for Hayden, however, reactions from both committee members and neighbors who attended the meeting were unanimously unfavorable.
Committee member Susan O’Connell, one of several architects in attendance, was perhaps the most vocal critic of the night, honing in quickly on the building’s rather generic design. “The building looks like it just came out of nowhere and just plunked down,” O’Connell said. For example, she said, the design of the building’s corner is particularly “clunky,” and does not in any way address the street corner where it sits, which is not at all pedestrian friendly…on a street known for its exceptional walkability. In fact, O’Connell said, the building looks as if it should have retail spaces on the ground floor, but instead there’s “nothing” there except parking spaces, another pedestrian-unfriendly design feature.
O’Connell also criticized the design’s lack of historical and neighborhood context, noting that it takes no cues from and shows no understanding of the highly charismatic Larchmont neighborhood in which it’s located. She also suggested that this could actually work against the developers’ profitability goals, since they could potentially charge higher rents for a building in this prime location, but the design does nothing to reflect that desirability. Instead, O’Connell said, the project “looks like a second-year architecture student designed it,” is “cheap looking,” and “looks like it was pulled it out of a drawer with no thought at all. ”
Chris Shanley, a neighborhood resident and also an architect, agreed with O’Connell on all points, saying the community is looking for developers who have a long-term investment in the area and truly understand what makes it special. He called this particular design a “pathetic piece of architecture,” which he said needs downsizing, more creativity, and better choices of materials. And he, too, criticized the choices to put parking on the first level of the building and the entrance on Rosewood, elements which he said are “ass-backwards” for the site.
Committee member Patricia Carroll, not an architect but a local realtor who has an office in an historic building further north on the same block of Larchmont, said that a generic building like this “could turn the whole sensibility of the north part of Larchmint, and it’s a shame.” She, too, said the design does not take advantage of the street’s walkability, and doesn’t address any of the community’s longtime efforts to make the street more walkable. “I think the whole project should be re-thought,” she said. “Look at the street and what it means to neighbors. This is an incredible opportunity. Why not be an asset to the street? Why not make it wonderful from the start?”
In fact, the admonition to take cues from the existing street and community context were voiced in many forms by many speakers at the meeting, with several people noting that this doesn’t mean a building can’t be modern at the same time. As an example of better and more appropriate modern designs, and more appealing construction materials, several people mentioned two newer buildings a couple of blocks north at Larchmont and Melrose.
During the discussion, one committee member asked Hayden if the developers are open to design changes at this point, and he said he would report the criticisms, but that it’s hard for the designers and developers to respond to general comments like “it’s too big” or “parking problems” without more specific suggestions. But this answer prompted several attendees to note (as they have many times on many projects over the years) that it would be very helpful if the developers and architects could also attend these meetings, in addition to third-party consultants, to help facilitate the design discussions and engage in a two-way discussion.
Near the end of the meeting, Meg Healy, city planning manager for City Council Member Nithya Raman, said she will reach out to Hayden for further discussion after the meeting. When asked her initial impressions of the project, however, Healy said CD4’s priority right now is to create more housing in the district, and she sees this project as an opportunity to provide space for 23 new households. She also noted that, as a TOC project, the developers can proceed by right, and the council office does not want to interfere with the city’s ministerial processes. She did say, however, that she will be happy to engage with the developers on issues of design and other details.
In response to Healy, committee member John Gresham commented that he hopes the council district’s agenda will focus most closely on affordable housing, “and not just housing at any cost,” saying he finds the inclusion of only two affordable units in this project “offensive.”
In the end, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that the GWNC board oppose the project as currently presented, pending design revisions and outreach to local neighbors.
The next meeting of the GWNC Land Use Committee will be held on Tuesday, February 23, at 6:30 p.m., via Zoom.
The next GWNC Board meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 10, at 7 p.m., also via Zoom.