“Viciousness”: La Cañada Flintridge’s NIMBY showdown

In wealthy LA County enclave, an epic saga leads to builder’s remedy

Cedar Street Partners' Alexandra Hack, Mayor Keith Eich, rat, traffic, La Cañada
Cedar Street Partners' Alexandra Hack and Mayor Keith Eich (Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal; Getty, LinkedIn, City of La Cañada Flintridge)

At first glance, the property’s location — along Foothill Boulevard, a busy commercial road in the small, affluent L.A. County city of La Cañada Flintridge — appears unremarkable. Its neighbors to the east and west include a Panda Express, a Presbyterian church and an Arco. To the north, across the four-lane boulevard, lies a post office, a bank and a large shopping complex.  

But the 1.3-acre lot at 600 Foothill has been the focus of a yearslong development feud that, while mostly unknown outside the city, ranks among Southern California’s fiercest.

“It’s no wonder to me that we have a housing crisis in California,” said Alexandra Hack, a principal at Cedar Street Partners and one of the project developers. “This experience, compounded across the state over decades? Yeah, I’m not surprised at all that we need a million and a half units.” 

“It is completely unfair that they get away with this stuff,” added Garret Weyand, another partner on the project, “when other cities are actually pulling their weight and building.” 

“I wasn’t expecting the viciousness,” he continued, “[and] how nasty these people really are.” 

The fight over the site dates back nearly a decade, predating the current team’s involvement. But after years of frustrations, in November Hack, Weyand and a third partner opted for a new approach, filing an initial application using builder’s remedy, the untested legal provision that allows developers to bypass local zoning in cities that are failing to meet their state housing mandates. Last month, the team filed its application for a five-story, 80-unit mixed-use complex. For a town with a long history of NIMBYism, it would help set a new housing paradigm — and one experts argue represents an ideal use of the strategy. 

“This one is special, because most of the other projects around the state are a bit more speculative,” said Rafa Sonnenfeld, a policy director at the San Francisco-based nonprofit YIMBY Law. “This is a real project that they’ve been attempting for years to get done.”  

“Our city’s not anti-growth” 

Located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, La Cañada ranks among the most picturesque areas of Greater L.A. and has the prices to match, with a median home value of around $2 million, more than double the county average. 

The Census offers insight into the city’s propensity for allowing new housing: In 1980, just a few years after it was incorporated, its population was 20,153. The current estimate is 20,078 — even as the county’s population has increased by about a third over the same period. 

“Everybody on this dais and that’s here is on the same page,” Rick Gunter, a former La Cañada planning commission chairman and current councilmember, said in a 2013 hearing. “We like living here. We like the way it is now.” 

In 2017, in an interview with the L.A. Times, another former La Cañada planning commissioner was even more explicit. 

“People like people of their own tribe,” Herand Der Sarkissian told the outlet, arguing against efforts to mix different housing types into wealthy areas. “I think the attempt to change it is ludicrous. Be it black, be it white. People want to be with people who are like them.”

Critics insist the town has taken the same anti-housing approach recently. For its latest Housing Element update, which was due in October 2021, the state determined La Cañada had to plan for an additional 612 units. City officials, after sending out form letters to property owners, identified more than 100 sites to meet the quota — including many that had almost no chance of being converted into multifamily housing, such as occupied multi-million dollar homes, churches, a post office and a site owned by the California Department of Transportation. .  

“They clearly used fraudulent properties,” said Weyand, who at one point performed an audit on the proposed sites with his development team. “You can’t do that under the law.” 

In a recent interview with The Real Deal, the city’s mayor, Keith Eich, acknowledged that the Census data suggested an anti-development skew. But he also said that residents hold a spectrum of views toward new housing, and rejected any notion his city is NIMBY-minded. 

“I think our town has evolved, just like California has,” he said. “Change is hard,” he added. 

Eich also defended the city’s first 2021 Housing Element update attempt as a good faith effort, and emphasized that, after multiple rounds of revisions, the state recently indicated that La Cañada was on track to compliance. 

“Our city’s not anti-growth,” he continued. But it is, in Eich’s words, “built out,” which has made it especially difficult to find the space to meet Sacramento’s planning quotas. 

“And I believe in this latest Housing Element we’ve done just that — we’ve increased the density. So hopefully we will see the fruits of that labor with people bringing forth projects.” 

Except the city’s most controversial project has already been in the works for years.  

“Open arms”

The battle over 600 Foothill Boulevard began in 2015, after Oakmont Senior Living, a Bay Area-based luxury senior housing firm, identified La Cañada as a prime location for a new complex because of its lack of senior housing. When Oakmont devised a plan to replace a decades-old Christian Science church building with a 72-unit senior living facility, the proposal won the buy-in of the church, a cohort of residents and the chamber of commerce, which recognized a need for new development.  

Still, the plans ignited a fiery backlash. Neighbors to the south of the property argued the three-story building’s height — Oakmont was requesting a 13-and-a-half-foot variance — would obstruct their mountain views, and additional residents would jam up local traffic, despite a city analysis that revealed otherwise. After a 2018 planning commission dragged late into the night, a group of outraged residents formed the nonprofit Together La Cañada for the express purpose of opposing the new senior housing. 

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

The group, which did not respond to interview requests, gained around 200 supporters, including a former mayor, and the financial backing of local realtors. It also mounted a sophisticated opposition campaign that included newspaper op-eds and sharp talking points.   

“Oakmont is simply a symptom of the larger problem, which is we’re not adhering to the guidelines in our Downtown Village Specific Plan,” Michael Gross, TLC’s founder and former star of the TV series “Family Ties,” told a local newspaper in 2018. “Do we have a set of rules, or do we not?” 

But the property fight grew nasty — at one point an Oakmont executive even reportedly received a dead rat in the mail sent from a La Cañada zip code — and, in 2019, as the city was still dithering on entitlements, Oakmont pulled out altogether. 

The current development team bought the site from the church that fall, for $4.2 million,and began planning a smaller, 47-unit senior housing project that also had a mixed-use component, with a small office space, a 12-room hotel and underground parking. 

Unlike Oakmont, this team was local. Weyand lives up the street from the project site, and Hack, who previously worked with Bruce Eichner on New York’s Madison Square Park Tower skyscraper, graduated from a La Cañada Flintridge high school. The third partner, Jonathan Curtis, a real estate attorney, is a well known local official who served as the city’s mayor from 2015 to 2016. 

“We’re going to be welcomed with open arms,” Weyand remembers thinking. “It’s going to be great.” 

Instead, to use Hack’s word, the application process turned into a “bloodbath.”

The backlash began almost immediately after the developers bought the property, when TLC traced a property deed to Curtis’s address. A councilman at the time, he acknowledged in the local press that he was part of a team that had bought the site and promised to recuse himself from any relevant votes. But opponents, including Gross, began publicly questioning both the city’s neutrality and Curtis’s ethics, insinuating he could be on the take. The credibility attacks grew so loud that the town’s city planning staff was compelled to issue a denunciation. 

“I mean, that’s his job,” said Weyand, of Curtis’s involvement in the project. “You don’t get any money for being on the council.”  

After the developers applied for entitlements, in the summer of 2020, the opposition reached a fever pitch. Together La Cañada launched a sensational Change.org campaign, arguing the 600 Foothill project would bring “wholesale upheaval.” The opponents hosted a series of community opposition events, cajoled council members into private meetings, and bought local newspaper ads that depicted the property with doctored renderings showing traffic jams and high-rises. Weyand, who is married with children, even heard rumors about his plans to sell the site, divorce his wife and split town. The developers tried distributing their own informational fliers to local businesses to counteract the disinformation campaign, but a TLC member who saw one responded by threatening a blacklist.  

“If you come out for this project,” an opponent told the business owner, who relayed the story to Weyand, “I’ll make sure that my whole group will never shop at your business again.” 

In order to build the developers needed an exemption from the city’s 20-year-old rigid downtown zoning code, and in September 2021, after months of community tension, the city’s planning commission recommended city council grant it, citing the local need for senior housing and the project’s contribution toward the state’s housing mandates. Two months later the council rejected it anyway. 

“This project may or may not be a mistake, but I think approving it tonight is probably a mistake,” Eich said at the November 2021 council meeting. “I don’t think we’ve had sufficient public discourse about it.” 

Builder’s what? 

But less than two weeks later, in early December, Sacramento rejected the city’s first Housing Element draft, citing the city’s proposed housing inventory as unrealistic. The rejection meant La Cañada, in order to eventually regain compliance, would need to include the developers’ project in its next Housing Element draft, and for months the team worked closely with city officials, including the previous mayor, on the revision process, reasoning that a state-approved upzoning would be good for all parties. 

“We wanted them to pass something,” said Weyand, “so we can get going again.” 

But the collaboration became marred by broken promises and mixed messaging from city officials, Weyand said. Then, last February, as the city was working on its Housing Element revision, the council moved for a new downtown zoning split that the developers said was really a pretext to once again preempt any housing construction at 600 Foothill. It appeared that playing nice was no longer an option. 

“The builder’s remedy — sure, we had kind of heard of it,” said Hack, but the tactic didn’t really seem viable until WS Communities, the firm run by Neil Shekhter and Scott Walter, filed its now famous flurry of applications in Santa Monica in October, she added.  

By then the team had also been talking for years with housing advocates, including Sonnenfeld, who encouraged them to go forward with their own builder’s remedy application. In November, with the support of Holland & Knight, they did. 

“You know what,” Hack recalled thinking, “we’ve been in this for long enough.” 

And this time, freed from local zoning considerations, they opted to go much bigger, ditching the senior housing plan and instead filing for a five-story mixed-use project that would include 80 residential units, including 16 low income units, as well as a 12-room hotel and around 8,000-square-foot office space; last month, when they followed through with the full application, they added two more hotel rooms. 

Questions remain, including whether the project will be granted a California Environmental Quality Act exemption and if the city will attempt any legal pushback. In January, soon after the developers filed the full application, Hack said they weren’t yet thinking about a construction timeline. 

But after nearly a decade of roadblocks and toxic opposition, the site is, at least on paper, slated to transform from a derelict, 1940s-era church property into a modern mixed-use complex. Its 80 residential units would be the most the housing-starved town has added in years.  

 “The funny thing is,” Hack said on a recent tour of the site,  “is that when this project is built, the same people [who opposed it] will probably be like, ‘Oh this is great.’” 

Read more

Californians for Home Ownership's counsel Matthew Gelfand and YIMBY Action's Jessamyn Garner
San Francisco
YIMBYs sue Bay Area cities to recognize builder’s remedy
Leo Pustilnikov
Los Angeles
Meet the developer giving California NIMBYs nightmares
Recommended For You