In an opinion filed on November 30, and belatedly ordered published on December 22, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying all CEQA challenges asserted by plaintiff/appellant Los Angeles Conservancy (“Conservancy”) to the City of West Hollywood’s (“City”) approval of the “Melrose Triangle” project (“project”).  Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood(Charles Company, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) ____ Cal.App.5th _____.

The project proposed office, retail, residential and restaurant uses, and public and private open space and pedestrian paseos, on a 3-acre site at the City’s western “gateway,” and called for demolition of the site’s existing structures, which included an architecturally significant building originally constructed in 1928 and potentially eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources (the “9080 Building”).  By 2012 amendments, the City’s general plan called for the site’s development with an iconic “Gateway” building with exemplary architecture, and significant open space and pedestrian walkthroughs open to the sky.  Developer Charles Company’s proposed Gateway Building would occupy the space currently occupied by the 9080 Building, and other buildings and features on the site were also proposed to implement the general plan’s development vision.

The City’s 2014 Draft EIR (“DEIR”) for the project identified the 9080 Building’s demolition as a significant and unavoidable adverse impact, and described three alternatives addressing it: (1) no project/no new development; (2) reduced office space development; and (3) 9080 Building preservation through project reduction/redesign.  The EIR analyzed Alternative 3 in depth, and identified it as the environmentally superior alternative; but it also concluded that, while it would meet many project objectives, it would not utilize the existing parcels to their full extent, maximize the site’s redevelopment potential or fully enhance the area’s urban character, create a cohesive, unified site design for the City’s western gateway, or have the same degree of fiscal or economic benefits as the project.  The EIR identified as mitigation measures for 9080 Building demolition photographic documentation, and incorporating some of the 9080 Building’s significant, character-defining architectural features in the project’s design.

Before the City Council considered the project, the developer also asked its architects to consider preservation and relocation options for the entire 9080 Building, as well as preserving and integrating portions of the building into the project design.  The architects concluded the first option would negatively impact the overall project design and cause a loss of required parking, the second would destroy the historic resource’s integrity, but that the 9080 Building’s entry façade could be integrated into the Gateway Building’s entrance.  The City adopted the last option as mitigation and a development condition.  It also adopted a statement of overriding considerations as to the historic resource impacts, finding that Alternative 3 – preserving and incorporating the entire 9080 Building into the project – was infeasible because it would eliminate and disrupt critical project design elements, including interrupting design frontage on Santa Monica Boulevard and necessitating smaller disjointed structures to accommodate the existing building.

The Conservancy’s CEQA writ action asserted that the EIR’s Alternative 3 analysis was inadequate; that the City’s finding of that alternative’s infeasibility was unsupported by substantial evidence; and that the City failed to adequately respond to public comments.  The trial court rejected these arguments and denied the writ petition, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.  Key take-aways from the Court of Appeal’s opinion include:

  • An EIR’s alternatives analysis “must be specific enough to permit informed decision making and public participation,” the “level of analysis is subject to a rule of reason,” and it “need not ‘consider in detail each and every conceivable variation of the alternatives stated.’” (Citing Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, 406, 407.)
  • The EIR’s lack of a “conceptual design” architectural rendering of Alternative 3 did not render it inadequate; no legal authority requires an EIR to include design plans for project alternatives.
  • The EIR was not faulty because it lacked an “explicit explanation” of its conclusion that preserving the 9080 Building would preclude construction of the Gateway Building and a portion of other planned buildings; that much was evident from the “self-explanatory” project plans and drawings in the EIR showing the Gateway Building would be built in the same spot the 9080 Building currently occupies.
  • Imprecise estimates of Alternative 3’s retail, restaurant and office space reduction did not result in any ambiguity, confusion or inability to determine the alternative’s feasibility; “absolute perfection” is not required in analyzing alternatives, and the EIR was not a deficient informative document on this score.
  • The EIR’s brief, general responses to two comments (by the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and the President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles) that opined building preservation and adaptive reuse could be incorporated into a coherent design, were not inadequate. The comments consisted of “objections and general expressions of support for Alternative 3,” and did “not raise new issues or disclose any analytical gaps in the EIR’s analysis”; the City’s responses could therefore properly be brief, general and reference the DEIR’s existing discussion of the relevant issues.
  • Substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that Alternative 3 was infeasible. Such a finding may be based on the alternative not meeting project objectives or being “impractical or undesirable from a policy standpoint.”  (Quoting and citing California Native Plant Society v. City of Santa Cruz (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 955, 1001 (“CNPS”); Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rialto (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 899, 948-949; City of Del Mar v. City of San Diego (1982) 133 Cal.App.3d 401, 417.)  Further, an infeasibility finding is “presumed correct” and “entitled to great deference” (CNPS, at 997), and may be supported by evidence contained anywhere in the administrative record.
  • Here, in approving the project and the statement of overriding considerations, the City found Alternative 3 was inconsistent with numerous project objectives, including providing a modern, high quality design, creating a consistent pattern of development, enhancing the “gateway” intersection, developing pedestrian-oriented and friendly use, and providing adequate common open space. Because the record contained enough information – in the form of project development plans, photos and text in the EIR, and architect and planner testimony – to support a fair argument that Alternative 3 was inconsistent with the project objectives, substantial evidence supported the City’s infeasibility finding.