Three people are holding Westwood hostage.
They have been for the past two decades.
Because of its penchant for holding businesses at bay or filing appeals against them, Westwood Village has long been synonymous with empty buildings, unfulfilled promises and the distant memory of a thriving community that once was.
According to Los Angeles city documents, more than 60% of the 72 appeals filed in Westwood since 1998 have come from Steve Sann, Sandy Brown and Wolfgang Veith. Sann chairs a phony community council, Brown heads the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association and Veith is a happenchance community member and part of Sann’s cooked up council.
The three stooges have filed appeals against businesses or developers for everything including constructing too tall of buildings, not having enough parking spaces as designated by a 30-year-old zoning ordinance, seeking alcohol licenses and installing windows.
Their aim: to make Westwood clean, safe and beautiful. And yet, the neighborhood is anything but.
Los Angeles’ appeals process has been ringing the death knell of Westwood for decades. Restaurants with the potential to succeed anywhere else have come and gone after facing community opposition. Some never even get the opportunity to open, after the burden of appeals becomes too much to handle on top of startup costs.
The fact that a couple of civically hyperengaged individuals can railroad entire business districts – even those that are largely composed of students – is evidence enough that the city’s developmental regulations need fixing.
Courts have long sanctioned those who engage in vexatious litigation, or lawsuits intended only to harass an individual or entity. And Westwood’s all-too-eager litigants are indeed vexatious.
Sann, responsible for nearly a third of all appeals in Westwood since the beginning of the millennium, has sued UCLA for trying to increase its student housing; allegedly helped box out Sepi’s from relocating in the Village; helped revoke Panera Bread’s restaurant permit in 2014 because it apparently didn’t qualify as a full-service, sit-down business; and filed seven appeals specifically against businesses’ use of alcohol.
The UCLA alum has defended his conduct, stating he cares about the character and history of the Village. But that’s hard to believe when he has stood against student housing, the formation of a more inclusive neighborhood council and even – in an expletive-laden rant captured on tape – proclaimed to block the entry of any new businesses coming into Westwood.
Brown and Veith fare no better. Brown, long the vice president of the now-ousted Westwood Neighborhood Council, filed 10 of the 72 appeals and has a track record of trying to block D1 Café from obtaining an alcohol permit because she thought the owner – an Iranian immigrant – didn’t understand English, as well as saying students shouldn’t have more nightlife entertainment in the Village because they don’t pay property taxes. Veith filed 11 appeals and attempted to block the conversion of a UCLA fraternity house into an apartment complex.
There’s no putting it lightly: The city’s appeals process has become a bully pulpit for those with the time and energy to kill, despite it being meant as a safeguard to protect the interests of a majority of the community. What’s more, each appeal costs the appellant only $89, while the city is stuck footing a $13,538 bill for processing – often ending with Los Angeles denying baseless appeals anyway.
The individuals filing these appeals might argue it’s their right to do so. But it’s hard to believe even a majority of these individuals’ dozens of obstructions to development or business in Westwood have been in its interest. The neighborhood lacks housing, business and accessibility. And the irony is that a process meant to empower community members to protect their interests has been warped to counteract them.
Reducing the appeal abilities of these counterproductive individuals is a start. But the city has a long way to go before it can ensure the appeals process enshrines the virtues and values of Los Angeles’ communities instead of blockading them.