Target Corp. stopped construction of a new store. Real estate investor CIM Group was ordered to suspend leasing at a 301-unit apartment tower. And Millennium Partners' $664 million high-rise complex may never get off the ground.
All three projects, in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, were held up by Robert P. Silverstein, who has emerged as the go-to attorney for community groups seeking to slow growth in the second-largest U.S. metropolis.
"I use the David-versus-Goliath metaphor a lot, but it's generally true," Silverstein, 46, said in an interview. "It's not an easy thing to fight government or big developers."
Community-based efforts to control development have increased in response to a Los Angeles construction revival. The disputes are driving up project costs in a real estate market that's already expensive, making it harder to add retail space and homes in the country's least-affordable city for housing.
Silverstein uses the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, along with open-meeting laws and public-record requests to find flaws in proposed projects, forcing developers to alter their plans or face costly delays and litigation. Development proponents argue that laws are being misused on behalf of well-heeled, not-in-my-backyard activists willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect their lifestyles and property values.
"The people who are most apt to fight things have six-figure incomes and nice houses and college and post-college degrees," Mike Saint, a Nashville, Tenn.-based land-use consultant and co-author of the 2009 book "NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use," said in a telephone interview. "You can't convince them to support a shopping center across the street from their house just because it's going to create jobs and tax revenue."
The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of 44 Los Angeles-area community groups, turns to Silverstein because it's the only way to get the city to pay attention or abide by the rules, said Marian Dodge, the federation's president.
"It's unfortunate we have planning by litigation," she said. "They'll put in everything they can because they know the average Joe can't afford to litigate. And most of the time they get away with it."
Except when Silverstein is on the case. In October, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ordered the city to revoke the certificate of occupancy and other permits for the 23-story Sunset and Gordon on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood after Silverstein argued the apartment-tower developer had destroyed the facade of a historic building it agreed to preserve.
Also in October, Judge Richard Fruin ordered construction halted at a Target store on Sunset, after Silverstein argued the city improperly granted such zoning variances as a 74-foot height for the building, more than twice the limit for the site.
"We weren't against the Target," said Silverstein, who also represents the La Mirada community group in the dispute too. "We were against the lawbreaking Target. We're not against development in Hollywood, but we are against foolish and dangerous development."
Target still plans to complete the store, according to Erika Winkels, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based retailer.
Neighborhood groups originally opposed the Millennium Hollywood, a proposed twin-tower hotel, residential and retail development, because it was more than twice the height of the nearby landmark Capitol Records building and threatened to block views and increase congestion. Then Silverstein learned of studies indicating the proposed project stood on an active earthquake fault. He sued in August 2013, alleging the City Council violated CEQA in approving the massive project without weighing all of the facts. A state geologist's report in November confirmed the Hollywood Fault runs through the site.
The possibility of action by Silverstein deters some developers from working in Hollywood, said Jerold Neuman, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm of Liner LLP.
R.J. Comer, a land-use attorney with the Los Angeles firm of Armbruster Goldsmith & Delvac, advocates reforms to make it harder for neighborhood groups to block projects. Even if California laws are altered, conflicts are likely to multiply as an improving economy boosts development. Silverstein said he already has more work than he can handle.
"There's no shortage of government abuse, and there's no shortage of people fighting government," he said. "It's like drinking from a fire hose."