Caltrans waves red flag on Millennium Hollywood project

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It has become almost routine for community groups to rise up in protest whenever a big developer proposes a project likely to make their city neighborhoods unrecognizable.

But what's happening with the giant Millennium Hollywood project is much more unusual: In this case, a state agency is taking up the cudgel against the city of Los Angeles, accusing city officials of using bogus statistics and trampling over state law in an effort to push the project through to approval by the City Council.

The state agency is the California Department of Transportation. Caltrans is responsible for the health and welfare of the 101 Freeway, which winds within a block or two around the Millennium site.

The agency says, quite reasonably, that a $664-million project — comprising 461 residential units, 254 hotel rooms, more than a quarter-million square feet for office space, and 80,000 square feet of retail in two towers looming over the landmark Capitol Records building close to the already-busy corner of Hollywood and Vine — can't help but have a marked effect on the freeway. In fact, Caltrans makes it plenty clear that without significant changes in the plan, the effect on the 101 could be disastrous.

Caltrans is irked that city officials seem to have wholly ignored its concerns. In a May 7 letter to Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district encompasses the Millennium site — and who is a critic of the project and is the mayor-elect — the agency said that it hadn't heard from city officials since Feb. 19, when it listed a raft of misgivings about the Millennium. The City Council's vote, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday, is likely to be put off until July.

There are two bottom lines in the Caltrans analysis: one, the potential impacts from this mega-project will make the freeway and surrounding streets more unsafe; and two, the failure to measure and properly mitigate these impacts violates the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

The latter conclusion shouldn't be overlooked. CEQA has long been a whipping boy for real estate developers, who gripe that it serves only as a tool for anti-growth malcontents.

But if the City Council gives the Millennium a green light despite the unanswered questions about it, CEQA will be the only leverage the community will have to minimize its deleterious impacts. "Without CEQA compliance, this would be a big giveaway," says Robert P. Silverstein, a land-use lawyer representing more than 40 community and neighborhood groups opposing the project.

The battle already is shaping up along David versus Goliath lines. Millennium Partners is the epitome of big-money real estate development, the backer of billions of dollars in luxury developments in New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. Its Hollywood plan, featuring two towers of which one could be as tall as 585 feet, or 55 stories, aims to take advantage of city zoning changes that encourage high-density development near Metro stations, such as the stop at Hollywood and Vine.

Millennium's style is to gravitate toward high-profile but down-at-the-heels urban centers and spiff them up — creating "luxurious residential environments surrounded by beautiful places to work, shop, exercise and be entertained," it says with all due modesty. "All of our projects altered the skyline," Millennium co-founder Philip Aarons remarked in a recent interview with the Bloomberg news service.

That's always nice, especially if you're the one doing the altering. But the people who live and work under the existing skyline don't always perceive the gain. One of the criticisms heard about the Millennium Hollywood is that the towers, which will be the tallest buildings in Hollywood, will dominate, rather than complement, the low-rise neighborhoods around them and the Capitol building, which Millennium owns and will incorporate into the project.

Millennium does have the current city administration's favor. City Hall insiders say Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pressed for rapid approval, perhaps because he sees the Millennium as some sort of legacy. But the unresolved questions about traffic suggest that the whole scheme may need a better going-over than it has received.

That's not the view of the developers. "This will be the most highly regulated project ever approved by the city," declares Jerold B. Neuman, the project's Los Angeles land-use attorney.

Neuman says the disagreement between Caltrans and the city involves a broader fight between them over how to set standards for reviewing environmental issues with local and state impacts. "We're stuck in the cross hairs," he told me.

Still, it's hard to argue that Caltrans is out of line in questioning the city's assertion that this huge project would feed no more than 150 cars a day onto the 101 during peak hours. That's the threshold figure the city used to justify its conclusion that the Millennium would have "a less than significant impact ... on freeway segments" — and therefore "no mitigation is required."

From Caltrans' point of view, that stretches plausibility to the breaking point. (Even if it were true, Caltrans says, the 101 is so jammed now that 150 more rush-hour cars is significant enough. Would anyone who drives the Hollywood Freeway disagree?) Caltrans says the city's estimate "is not based on any credible analysis that could be found anywhere" in the environmental impact report. And it points out that more overload on the 101 means more backups from on-ramps onto city streets, more cars spewing exhaust into residential neighborhoods, more potential vehicle/pedestrian encounters (and we know who always wins those).

Caltrans says the city didn't bother to study the freeway segments where there would be the most impact, including the six on- and off-ramps closest to the Millennium site. When it did study traffic impacts, Caltrans adds, it used faulty formulas, including giving the developer too much credit for mitigation efforts such as bikeshare and carpooling.

Tomas Carranza, a senior transportation engineer at the city Department of Transportation, told me that the developers will put in place a "really aggressive trip reduction program" exploiting the city's transit system and incentives to encourage residents, workers and visitors to leave their cars at home. But he also acknowledges that "there will be more traffic, and there will be unmitigated impacts" from the Millennium.

The council's vote, when it comes, will amount to a judgment that the upside of building the Millennium will outweigh the inevitable downsides. Can we trust the evidence they'll be relying on? Caltrans says no.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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