CIM-ZILLA!!! How Does a One Billion Dollar Real Estate Developer Take Control of City Council, Building and Safety and Your Community?

CIM, the developer of Midtown Crossing which houses Lowe's, and a variety of big name retailers, is a HUGE real estate investment firm worth more than $1 billion dollars. They have brokered deals for the wealthiest clients and in the wealthiest communities including Manhattan, Washington, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They have signed leases with William Morris, Endeavor, Yelp, Oprah Winfrey, Sony Corporation, the list is endless. Here in Los Angeles they own most of the 3rd Street Promenade and in a 2009 article in the LA Weekly, (http://www.laweekly.com/2009-09-03/news/cim-group-hollywood-39-s-richest-slumlord/) reporter Patrick Range McDonald  claims "It now owns the long-disappointing Hollywood & Highland shopping center, which houses the Kodak Theatre. Despite endless assurances by City Councilman Eric Garcetti and his predecessor, Jackie Goldberg, the development has soaked up vast sums of public money and enjoys a key location at a crossroads for global tourism, yet has never delivered as promised to taxpayers."

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The LA Weekly article explored CIM shenanigans in Hollywood when local community activists took CIM to task regarding its slum Hollywood property adjacent to the resident’s property. Homeless kids and prostitutes regularly used the abandoned properties to camp out. CIM vice- president John Givens, ignored the resident pleas to have the blight attended to and efforts to get Building and Safety or local Councilman Tom LaBonge to do anything, proved fruitless. In the meantime CIM, the billion dollar company, was awarded a $30 million loan by the City Council, to bring Cirque de Soleil to Hollywood and Highland. It was pushed by Garcetti, and the City Council greenlit the loan. When the activists created neighborhood news blogs, filmed the blight and reported on YouTube - the issue went viral and CIM, embarrassed and concerned an image of slums was being associated with their brand, finally razed the blight. 

This drama is now being replicated between 16th Place residents, CIM, Building and Safety, and Councilman Wesson. 

CIM was awarded a $19 million federal loan by the City Council to complete the second phase of the Mid-City's Midtown Crossing project. 

From Curbed LA  

“Among those voting against the loan was Councilman Dennis Zine, who griped after the meeting about CIM Group and its use of pension and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds to pay for its projects. “The whole thing to me is like a shell game,” said Zine. “ I think that’s what CIM is like, they are a shell game.”

The only other “no” vote from the City Council came from City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who questioned the transparency of the project and its ultimate public benefits in a statement.

The article also observed that a very cosy relationship existed between CIM and the city, “Two city pension boards are putting city employee retirement dollars in to CIM funds.”

TNN’s ongoing investigations have discovered that while CIM, a national development company, collects millions of dollars in loans from the city for their projects, they often ignore the concerns of neighborhoods they come stomping into, as well as the pleas from city agencies to adhere to the law.  We have discovered that Building and Safety gives CIM wide latitude and as one inspector put it…"we really don’t have any bullets in our gun when it comes to enforcement”.  We have discovered that although, according to Councilman Wesson’s site, he enjoys good relations with developers throughout District 10 and has a hand in this and that development, when it comes to CIM he apparently has little influence. Or perhaps, he doesn’t want to poke them?

16th Place Residents

Avid readers of TNN may have been following the plight of 16th Pl. residents. They own houses atop a hill running along Venice Blvd. at the intersection of San Vicente. This position once afforded them a grand and sweeping view of the city, looking north to the Hollywood Hills.  Their northern view also included the old Sears Roebuck, which had been razed and the land earmarked for development. The residents felt confident their early negotiations between the city and CIM, the developer, would keep their views safe and free of the significant impacts that have followed.

CIM WallTheir trust and faith exploded when they woke up one morning in early June 2011 to face a three story slab of concrete that had been erected literally overnight without warning and contrary to the plans that had been presented to the community.

Robert Portillo, a community leader who has led the 16th Pl.  response said “Throughout the hearing process for the Midtown Crossing development (Pico Plaza in its early days), we were assured that the redevelopment of the old Pico Sears site would not have negative effects on us.  By backing the Mitigated Negative Declaration, a document that allows the developers to circumvent the agreements made, the city council abandoned environmental protections we had in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) process, and allowed the oversized building that confronts us today and eats away at our quality of life.  Documents and meetings were misleading and erroneous and responsibility to community was cast aside to achieve a financial goal.  The result is that this project is nothing like the one presented to us and we have lost an important community and district asset.”        


The Wall obliterated their views. It loomed so large and seemed so close you could almost touch it. Shock ensued and the nightmare of 16th Place began. The hill and the Wall created a canyon sending up ‘off the chart’ noise (they have the sound studies to prove it) and pollution generated by the traffic which had nowhere to go but up. Lights from the rooftop parking lot glared into their windows at night and property values took a dive. Soon the knife was twisted when huge billboards appeared and their once million dollar views had become advertisements for Samsung beaming into their windows. forweb

Residents rallied and for the last 3 years have been pushing back. In early Oct, 2012 the signage framing was installed on the walls along Venice Blvd directly across from the residents. 16th Pl. requested Councilman Wesson investigate but nothing was done.  The frames sat dormant until eight months later in May,  2013,  when Samsung phone ads were installed, pitching their product into the windows of  the hapless 16th Pl. residents who immediately contacted Building & Safety and asked them to investigate.  Later, through a series of emails and phone calls they learned that CIM failed to obtain 11 signage permits required by the Building Code, thus the signage which included billboards, vinyl banners and off site signage (advertisements for things not sold within the plaza) were in non-compliance and flagrantly illegal. 

BUILDING AND SAFETY (B&S)

Dealing with B&S and many City agencies is like dealing with a moving target. Information is loosy goosy, regulations and requirements are enforced for some, ignored for others.

By July 12, 2013 after residents asked B&S to investigate the signage and violations were found they issued an “order to comply” (submit a plan/request for permits) to CIM who not only ignored the order but continued to install more advertising/vinyl banners over the next year. B&S claimed that CIM hid the owners under layers of corporations and it took time to unearth the people who owned the corporation and who needed to receive the order.  Oddly, TNN found the information by googling the name CIM and discovering an LA Weekly article that identifies the owners, and...they were also found on CIM’s website. B&S admitted dropping the ball for five months and did nothing because they were "so busy with other issues and stretched thin.”

With the residents keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings, the city finally forced CIM’s hand. “C’mon Guys! Get on board. Pleeeease?” by the city agencies and an “Oh alright” by CIM.  During  Sept. CIM lowered some of the signs on Venice so they did not illegally extend above the top of the wall.  At first B&S told them they were only allowed 7,000 sq. feet of signage. They had used 9,000 square feet, 2,000 over the allowable. They recently covered over all the billboards on Venice (which included the off-site Samsung ads).

CIM then requested and was given another compliance date of Sept. 14, 2014. They submitted their plans asking for permits for everything, most of which, B&S said they would get. B&S recently told TNN and Robert Portillo that they in fact made an error in their calculations and now the allowable space for signage went to 11,000 square feet, an additional 4,000 feet from B&S's original calculations. An error they discovered soon after getting the permit request from CIM. When B&S was asked….”So after over a year of ignoring the city, showing flagrant disregard for the law, disregard for agreements with local residents, they were not asked to take the signs down, there were no fines, no lawsuits were filed and in the end they are going to get all…..” the agent at B&S interrupted “I didn’t say All…I said most”, TNN continued..”they are going to get most of what they wanted with no penalties?”  B&S said they did have to pay a fine of $360 to cover the expense of giving them an order to comply.  “B&S really has no bullets when it comes to enforcement”.  Not sure the small business owner, under the thumb of a B&S investigator, would agree.


COUNCILMAN WESSON 

(I refer to him with his title as our representative, not with his title of Council President which is a different job description) 

Armed with articles published in the LA Weekly and this publication, and along with their own research, 16th Place residents approached Councilman Wesson who initially ignored them. Realizing the constituents weren’t going away he finally responded to emails and made a few promises, then cut them off and ignored a total of 63 emails over 3 years asking him to follow through on his promises. Much of this correspondence has been reprinted in TNN.  The determined residents were not going away.

Once discovered, 16th Pl. sent information about illegal signage to Councilman Wesson hoping he would use his impressive power as City Council President to bring CIM to heel, but to no avail. Councilman Wesson continued to ignore them.  Perhaps the emails were being kept from the Councilman by his deputies?  Perhaps the Councilman had read them but had more important Council President duties to attend to?  Questions regarding why Councilman Wesson ignored these emails have remained unanswered by CD10. 

Determined to ensure that their concerns and the illegal activity of CIM be brought to his attention, 16th Pl. residents, on January 13,'14, Robert Portillo, Starr Johnson and this reporter, went to open mike at City Hall and gave their report. 16th Pl also included a petition requesting removal of the illegal signage to Council President Wesson.  Still no response. 

Finally this reporter was able to arrange a meeting between 16th Place and Councilman Wesson that took place on Aug. 11.  As a result of that meeting Councilman Wesson, along with deputies Sylvia Lacy and John Harmon, met with the residents on Aug. 16 at the 16th Place location to go over the many concerns of the residents including the signage, the blight, the seismic safety of the hill, their request to have their tax assessments reconsidered.  A meeting scheduled with Councilman Wesson in October will clarify what steps Councilman Wesson will take to assist his constituents in their battle with the developers. Record requests to Councilman Wesson for any documents of conversations between the developers CIM, B&S, the City Attorney and his office, shows very little discussion between the Council Office and these agencies after the recent meeting with 16th Place and nothing prior.  All the few documents revealed were emails setting up a meeting, a summary of a phone conversation about the issue with some B&S agents without any hint of what was discussed.  A report on the results of the 16th Pl meeting with Councilman Wesson in October will appear in the next issue of TNN. 


Could it be that Councilman Wesson had ignored the pleas of his constituents for the following reason… According to a Los Angeles Times report in 2008, Councilman Wesson intended to help CIM secure a “Sign District” which would allow them to display additional vinyl banner advertisements along with their billboards. “Wesson, whose council district includes Mid-City, said the project is well worth the money. And he voiced confidence that CIM's efforts would fuel a revitalization along Pico Boulevard, luring customers from South Los Angeles and even the Eastside."

"CIM gets the job done," the councilman said. "Some developers don't succeed, but these guys are like the pizza man. They deliver."  (When this quote was repeated to him by Robert Portillo, Councilman Wesson expressed regret over having said it.) 

Could another reason that Councilman Wesson has dragged his feet on this issue be that signage also generates cash, cash used to pay back City loans?

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For now, signs have been whited out and a hold has been put on the request for permits by the Community Redevelopment Agency, CRA still exercise some control over the project because of their initial involvement with securing the project. But they are no longer a part of the city government and so are are not beholding to developers who can put money into a Councilpersons campaign...or their rivals.  CRA was disturbed when they saw the exceeding number of permits and signage CIM was looking for and they slowed the process down. They were also concerned when CIM told them that red vinyl banner ads had been removed but in fact, were still up.  A blatant lie.  CRA will have to approve of the permits before B&S can hand the permits over. Stay Tuned.

Editors Note: All of the signage on the wall facing 16th Pl. has been removed...for now.  
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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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