u’re working on a project and you hear that Robert Silverstein is getting involved on the other side of it, you don’t think to yourself, ‘Am I right? Do I have a good defense? Did I do my project right?’” Smith said. “You think, ‘I’m screwed’ and ‘How much of a check am I going to have to write?’”
Indeed, many of Silverstein’s petitions arise from the complex California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), while others center on elements of Los Angeles’s community plans — some of which are almost 30 years old. Smith said those conditions have created a workaround of “planning by adjudication,” and Silverstein has created “a workaround for a workaround.”
“The way our laws are written and the way our plans are done, it’s very difficult for any project of a certain scale to escape the kind of discretionary approvals that Silverstein can very easily attack,” Smith said.
These are arguments that Silverstein said he has heard before — and ones that he quickly derides.
No matter how old the community plans are, he said, they were designed as expressions “of how the public wanted to see growth and development proceed” in each neighborhood. But, he adds, the city and developers have used the age of those plans to “constantly break the law.”
As for the assertion that he’s only winning cases because of his ability to nitpick expansive regulations, he said, “If all we had was a minor technicality, we wouldn’t be filing enormous trial briefs and spending years working on it.”
Zev Yaroslavsky, a former longtime Los Angeles City Council member, Los Angeles County Supervisor and current director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said that Silverstein’s lawsuits attack not only the problems with specific projects but issues with the city’s entitlement process as a whole.
Yaroslavsky, who called Silverstein “one of the more important figures in land use in the city,” said that L.A. developers find a piece of property and petition the city for upzoning to maximize their profits. In most cases, the developers get what they want, he said.
Silverstein has been a “finger in the dike” of that culture, holding builders and officials accountable and often costing them more than the project would’ve made had it gone through without any issues, Yaroslavsky said.
“He’s a very intense guy,” said the former City Council member. “And he’s a true believer: To him, the law is the law, and he’s going to hold the city to every letter of it.”
Silverstein’s detractors, some of whom have pegged him with titles such as “NIMBY lawyer,” dismiss his courtroom wins, arguing that his cases represent a small fraction of the community at large and only serve to bolster his bottom line.
Leron Gubler, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said that the neighborhood as a whole wants the Target built because it represents jobs and shopping opportunities, but as it stands, halfway constructed, it’s an “eyesore.” In fact, the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association, the plaintiff in several Silverstein lawsuits, has few known members. However, it has successfully opposed several projects in the neighborhood that have the support of the community at large. “[The association] doesn’t represent our membership in the Chamber, and I don’t think it represents the broader view of the community,” Gubler said. “There is no groundswell of opposition to the Target, I can tell you that.”
There’s also the question of the money that changes hands when these groups are successful. Smith, the developer, said that the settlements in these cases are often undisclosed, so it’s impossible to know exactly how much money an attorney makes on a CEQA challenge, for example.
Silverstein takes some cases on a pro bono basis and defers payment in others until a settlement is reached. But suffice to say, they can be sizable sums, Smith said.
“Several attorneys around the state have carved out a niche in championing the petitioner’s side of those lawsuits, and Silverstein is one of them,” Smith said.
In one example of a settlement, Silverstein’s law firm was awarded $780,000 from the city in 2014 for its role in the challenge to the Hollywood Community Plan.
Silverstein said he’s well aware of the criticism, but he brushes it off as the “whining of a side that is constantly losing.” He added that the large settlements come after years of work — ones in which he was deferring payment until the case was finished.
“If this was a good business model, you would see a lot more people doing it,” he said.
As for the argument that his clients don’t represent that community as a whole, Silverstein said that not everyone in Hollywood is opposed to the Target, but they likely are opposed to a corrupted process.
“Nobody that I know in the community supports the City Council violating the law … A lot of people don’t care about that particular issue, but everyone I know cares about trying to have more honesty and integrity in the process,” he said.
For Silverstein, a 30-year vegetarian and former freelance journalist, restoring integrity to that process begins with what he describes as David-versus-Goliath fights. He said it’s work that began in his career as a journalist, when he favored stories that questioned power, and continued as he entered the legal field, nearly immediately latching onto eminent domain cases.
While he had trouble pointing to the specific cases he’s most proud of, he recounted letters he’s gotten from past clients, reading aloud one from a family he represented in an eminent domain case: “Dear Robert, Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You saved our home.”
And to him, notes like that makes the nights on the office couch worth it.
“I can feel good about what I do, and I can lay my head down on those few nights when I actually do go to sleep,” he said. “I know that we have fought the good fight.”
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