Shaken, not stirred: Inside Millennium’s battles at Hollywood Center

Concerns of earthquake fault lines are just the latest hurdle for megadevelopment

Los Angeles Issue /
Oct.October 25, 2021 09:30 AM
Millennium Partners' Philip Aarons and a rendering of the Hollywood Center project (Getty, Rendering via Handel Architects)
Millennium Partners’ Philip Aarons and a rendering of the Hollywood Center project (Getty, Rendering via Handel Architects)

For a message that warned of potential catastrophe, the tone was unfailingly polite.

“Dear Ms. Nguyen,” wrote Timothy McCrink and Janis Hernandez, both researchers at the California Geological Survey. “This letter conveys comments from CGS regarding geologic and seismic conditions affecting the site.”

The site in question was the proposed Hollywood Center, a high-rise mixed use development that has triggered a bitter, protracted debate over its location along a possibly active earthquake fault line.

The researchers’ comments in that July 2020 letter referred to a 13,000-page draft environmental impact report the Los Angeles City Planning department had published a few months earlier. The report failed to consider critical recent government analyses, the researchers said, that “strongly suggest” an active strand of the fault crosses the project site.

After years of scrutiny, the new studies sparked fresh doubts about a megaproject whose final approval lay with the L.A. City Council. In 2013, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, whose district encompasses the site, declared the development “a game changer for the Hollywood area.” But after years of legal and political battling, the fate of the $1 billion, 1.3 million-square-foot project remains very much in question. The earthquake debate comes amid a broader environmental reckoning for California’s real estate industry, as the state also grapples with increasingly frequent wildfires and droughts.

“We would never build across an active fault. And the city, rightfully, would never allow us to.”

​​- Philip Aarons, Millennium Partners

With two of its four planned towers stretching 46 and 35 stories, Hollywood Center would easily become Hollywood’s tallest project, stirring controversy even if it wasn’t a potential quake hazard.

“I personally don’t get it,” said one prominent L.A. commercial broker of the developer’s doggedness, requesting anonymity to share their frank prognosis. “What politician, after [the fatal condo collapse in Surfside, Florida] wants to go out on a limb, because God forbid something happens?”

The developer, New York-based Millennium Partners, is also facing mounting criticism over its 58-story “leaning” and sinking tower in San Francisco.

Millennium has long maintained that the Hollywood site is safe.

Philip Aarons, Millennium’s founding partner and the driving force behind the project, declined an interview for this story but said in a statement that the company “would never build across an active fault.”

“And the city, rightfully, would never allow us to,” he added.

Rules from the rubble

It was still dark out on Feb. 9, 1971, when Betty Van Decar, a 38-year-old nurse in the northern L.A. neighborhood of Sylmar, heard the earth move. She watched in horror as an entire hospital ward collapsed in front of her.

“It buckled down, caved in, the whole building,” Van Decar recounted to the Los Angeles Daily News in 2016. “I thought: They’re not going to make it.”

The 6.6 magnitude quake lasted 60 seconds and killed 64 people. The damage was estimated at $550 million, about $3.7 billion in today’s dollars.

The devastation spurred legislation. After convening a special earthquake council, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Alquist-Priolo Act into law in December 1972. It directed the California Geological Survey to publish maps detailing active faults and required real estate agents to disclose when properties lay within a fault zone. The law also prohibited new construction of residential buildings within the mapped zones unless a “geologic investigation” proved the fault posed no danger.

The law created a new paradigm of earthquake safety in California. It also set the stage for what would become one of L.A.’s most contentious development fights.

Acquisition, then controversy

Millennium first submitted its Hollywood proposal in 2008. The neighborhood, once synonymous with American glamour, had for decades been more associated with poverty and blight. But an urban transformation was taking shape. The L.A. City Council, led by the telegenic Eric Garcetti — whose district included Hollywood — was championing density-oriented planning changes.

Billions of dollars in private investment came pouring in, and major projects were rising, including the 15-story W Hotel at Hollywood and Vine.

“Certain approvals make absolutely no sense.”

​​- Robert Silverstein

Millennium – a firm whose portfolio included skyscrapers such as the Park Millennium in Manhattan and the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami – bought the parcels of vacant parking lots in 2006 from Capitol Records for an undisclosed price. In 2008, when the developer filed a master land use permit application on the 4.5-acre Capitol Records site just a block away, the move barely registered in the press.

Five years later, however, the project would become as controversial as it was ambitious.

At the planning department’s initial public hearing in February 2013, vigorous public discussion about the project pushed the meeting to four hours. Hollywood Hills residents and the California Department of Transportation worried about increased density and traffic congestion, especially on the nearby 101 freeway. Preservationists worried about the future of the Capitol Records building. A performing arts college fretted about the impact on its campus.

“We all know that this project will be a disaster for the residents,” one community group, Savehollywood.org, wrote in an email that year. “So many of these projects have been business failures but the developers don’t care. Once it is built they just take the money and run, leaving the community with the mess.”

And then, on a Monday that July — two days before the Council would decide whether to greenlight the project — Robert Silverstein held a news conference. Dubbed the “NIMBY lawyer” by adversaries, Silverstein, who frequently represents neighborhood groups against megadevelopments, was on his way to becoming one of L.A.’s most effective land use lawyers. After Millennium introduced its plans, community groups had approached him with their concerns about the project, he said in a recent interview, and he was planning on mounting a zoning violations case. Then he discovered the site’s seismic issues.

With the Capitol Records building as a backdrop, Silverstein, joined by a dozen or so protesters, accused Millennium of using bad data to hide its project’s proximity to the Hollywood fault, which extends roughly nine miles across northern L.A., from Glendale southwest to Beverly Hills. At least five local networks ran the story — Millennium Hollywood, suddenly, was one of L.A.’s most infamous megaprojects.

A rendering of the Hollywood Center project (Rendering via Handel Architects)
A rendering of the Hollywood Center project (Rendering via Handel Architects)

Two days later, even though the geological agency also raised concerns, the City Council unanimously endorsed it.

“Certain approvals make absolutely no sense,” Silverstein said, describing the project as “the poster child for so much of what is wrong in Los Angeles.”

More than a decade later, two of the three council members who granted the project’s committee approval, Jose Huizar and Mitch Englander, would be indicted in a bribery scandal involving developers. It would also come out that Millennium’s law firm had hired Jeremy Chan, the son of Raymond Chan, then the city’s interim general manager of the Department of Building and Safety. The elder Chan would go on to become L.A. deputy mayor and was also indicted in the pay-to-play scandal.

Shaken, not stirred

In January 2014, John Parrish, then-chief of the geological agency, weighed in. The scientist’s gentle demeanor and white handlebar mustache recalled a veteran high school science teacher, but his message was urgent: After poring over geology reports and soil samples, the state agency had completed its draft map of the Hollywood Fault, and it was indeed active. Millennium’s project fell within the development-prohibited 500-foot fault zone. The fault, geologists have determined, is capable of producing a 7.0 quake — larger than the 1971 Sylmar rupture.

“We feel very confident about where we drew that line,” Parrish told reporters. A surface rupture, he added, would be “calamitous to structures that are built across the surface trace of an active fault.”

More than a year later, in April 2015, a Superior Court judge halted the project. But the decision had nothing to do with earthquakes. Instead, Judge James Chalfant ruled that Millennium’s environmental impact report was unacceptably vague, and failed to consider concerns about congestion on the 101.

Outside the Downtown L.A. courthouse, where one protester’s sign read, “MILLENNIUM KNEW EARTHQUAKE FAULT IS UNDER THEIR SITE,” reporters pursued Aarons, the Millennium founder, as he climbed into a waiting black SUV.

The developer issued a short declaration: The project, he said, “is certainly not dead.”

By 2018, Millennium, rebranding the development as Hollywood Center, had submitted plans for a slightly modified project, totaling nearly 1.3 million square-feet and featuring two slightly shorter high-rises, 30,000 square feet of commercial space, and a pair of 11-story buildings that would include over 1,000 residential units. Of those, 133 would be reserved for low-income senior housing — a measure that helped the developer secure support, along with various local chambers of commerce, from a collection of housing groups and nonprofits, including St. Barnabas Senior Services, the Downtown Women’s Center and Abundant Housing LA.

“This project addresses one of the city’s most urgent needs — affordable housing for older Angelenos,” Zack Warma, the legislative affairs manager for the Downtown Women’s Center,” wrote to the city planner last summer.

Supporters aren’t concerned about the earthquake risks, said Edward Stanza, who lives near the site.

“You know, I’ve been hearing about fault lines in Hollywood for decades — for decades — and I have yet to see a building fall,” Stanza said. The megaproject, he added, would also add vitality to what’s become a derelict area.

“Hollywood is building up already,” he said. “So why not Hollywood Center?”

The neighborhood is certainly evolving. Over the past few years developers have proposed dozens of major projects, including a 26-story building on the old Amoeba Records site and the 1.4 million-square-foot Crossroads Hollywood mixed-use complex. Netflix moved into a sleek new 3.5-acre campus on Sunset, and in September a developer unveiled plans for a 500,000 square-foot, egg-shaped Star building.

“I think Hollywood is going to be one of the brightest submarkets,” said Petra Durnin, head of market analytics at commercial brokerage Raise, who sees parallels with Downtown L.A.’s recent surge. “It’s been poised for that for a long time.”

The scientists’ latest concerns over Hollywood Center amounted to a bombshell. The government studies showed multiple fault traces crossing the site, they wrote, while Millennium’s investigation techniques — underlying the developer’s assertions of safety — were “subject to ambiguous interpretations”.

Millennium responded by attacking the credibility of the researchers. The geological agency — the state’s independent earthquake authority — had ignored “basic science,” the developer wrote in a statement last summer. “We will not speculate on CGS’ motives for submitting such a misleading letter at this late stage,” the developer went on, “other than to say that over the last several years, it appears that factions at CGS have pursued an arbitrary and capricious campaign to improperly influence the findings.” McCrink and the agency declined requests for interviews for this story.

The researchers’ letter, though, seemed to have an impact. On Oct. 15, 2020, four days ahead of a scheduled planning commission hearing, Councilman O’Farrell requested a delay, stating that “additional seismic review should occur” before the project advanced. More than a year later, it’s still stalled.

At the behest of the city, Millennium completed still more trenching earlier this year, although opponents maintain that excavation was also insufficient. This month, the Council’s land-use committee also rescinded its original 2013 approval, although that move essentially amounted to bureaucratic housekeeping. Given the follow-the-leader culture of L.A.’s City Council, O’Farrell, will likely have the deciding opinion, and with the trenching analysis still pending, he isn’t offering new clues about where he stands.

O’Farrell declined an interview. “The councilmember will take a position,” his representative said, “once that analysis has been completed.”

For the industry, the ongoing saga over Hollywood Center has shined a harsher spotlight on the physical, political and legal precarity of building in California, where faults could be lurking underneath any project site.

“Fault lines are not new to L.A. development,” one broker said. “Forty stories on top of them might be new.”

But even if Hollywood Center is ultimately denied, other developers are unlikely to be deterred, industry insiders said, both because L.A.’s council often finds ways to greenlight developments and because of the high degree of specificity concerning any particular project’s challenges.

“I have not seen developers,” Durnin said, “get scared off by something like that.”





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