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Soylent CEO Could Face Criminal Charges for LA Hilltop 'Experiment'

Lincoln Heights and Montecito Heights residents have fought for years to preserve open space on the hill above their communities known as Flat Top. But, lately, visitors to the popular hiking spot have found that open space obstructed by a bright red shipping container.

The container belongs to Robert Rhinehart, founder and CEO of the weird but trendy food-in-a-bottle company Soylent, who, in posts on Nextdoor.com, has described it as an “eco home” and “experiment in sustainable living.” He has encouraged neighbors to continue using the land for walks and runs, writing, “I would love to meet you and discuss the project.”

But Rinehart’s experiment in eco-living and attempt at neighborhood hospitality might be short lived.

The young entrepreneur is not only irking residents, who say the container has become an eyesore and a nuisance. He’s also in trouble with the city of Los Angeles, which says he doesn’t have the proper permits.

Alexander Moffat, a senior inspector in the city’s department of building, says Rinehart has refused to comply with an order to remove the container. (In June, the department cited Rhinehart for having an “abandoned or vacant building open to the public.”) Now his department is asking the city attorney’s office to file criminal charges.

container life

A photo posted by Robert Rhinehart (@robertrhinehart) on

Rhinehart bought the parcel of land beneath the shipping container at auction in December for $21,300, property records show. Since then, neighbors say the container’s glass windows have since been smashed and the entire unit has been extensively tagged with graffiti.

Gabriel Wrye, who lives next to the shipping container, and Roy Payan, who is the public safety chairman of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council a self-appointed guardian of Flat Top, says it’s attracting criminal activity.  On a recent visit to the hill, Payan says he saw “two people, a man and a woman” coming out of the unit. “When they saw us coming, the man started running.”

(Payan also says he suspects the container isn’t secured, so, “If an earthquake comes, that thing’s going to roll right down the hill and crush everything in its path.”)

Rhinehart says concerns about crime are overstated. “There is no evidence of illegal activity taking place on the property,” he wrote in an email to Curbed. “I have private security conduct regular inspections.”

Courtesy Bernie Spear

Numerous complaints have been filed about the container, says Freddy Ceja, communications director for City Councilman Gil Cedillo. Most recently, he said, neighbors were upset about a July Fourth party Rhinehart threw on the property.

In a bit of irony, the food-replacement guru—known for surviving for months on nothing but Soylent—apparently roasted a whole pig during the party, leaving the hilltop strewn with trash and leftover pork the next day. Rhinehart says the pig was “properly taken care of” and that the party “was also a lot of fun.” He says he wants neighbors to join in the festivities next year.

Container after July Fourth party

Rhinehart’s shipping container after the July Fourth party

Courtesy Jack Fenn

pig remains

Remains of the roasted pig

Courtesy Jack Fenn

The Soylent CEO did not want to comment on the possibility that he might face criminal charges, but says he’s frustrated by the city’s permitting system. “In the city of Los Angeles one may not install a garbage disposal without seeking a permit,” he says. “I feel like I’m living in the movie Brazil.”

He says he’s recently decided to relocate the container, though he did not specify when—only that he was doing so at the request of a neighbor. According to the City Attorney’s office, a hearing was held June 28 regarding the structure, but Rhinehart was apparently unwilling to remove it at that time.

He also says he’s considering buying more of parcels of land on the hill in order to protect it from “destructive development.” His neighbors must be thrilled…

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