Last Tuesday, City Council reviewed and unanimously approved a proposal for the development of 2.9 acres of city-owned land along Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets.
The project called the “Plaza at Santa Monica” is essentially a 148-foot tall, structure that would include yet another hotel, affordable housing, retail, offices, open performance plaza and subterranean parking.
City Hall purchased the property between 2007 and 2010 paying well over $100-million including interest, Officials said they had absolutely no use in mind for the land. Eventually, city officials decided to lease the property to a private developer who would develop the site.
Metropolitan Pacific Capital was brought in and proposed an architecturally striking, overly large, monolithic, 148 foot (12 floor) mega-building that is totally out of scale with the surrounding downtown neighborhood.
Despite being designed by world famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, council asked the developer to consider revising their proposal as an 84-foot high project — the maximum height recommended in the new Downtown Specific Plan. The developer’s stubbier version was reviewed Tuesday evening.
Metropolitan-Pacific requested that council support the taller design, noting that it would include more open space, more affordable housing and parking and generate more tax revenue than the smaller, shorter version — and mean much more profit for the developer.
Some local architects and slow-growth advocates viewed the stumpier version as “so deliberately ugly and devoid of community benefits” that council would have to approve the original, oversized proposal or start from scratch. In other words, Metropolitan-Pacific threw out the bait and council swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
The usual special interests also made their opinions known. Union members from Unite Here! Local 11 reminded council that the proposed 225 room hotel would create many union jobs. Councilman Tony Vazquez agreed and why shouldn’t he? The hotel union was instrumental in getting him and other councilmembers elected in 2012.
Sarah Letts, executive director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the city-affiliated affordable housing provider, informed council that the larger development – 48 vs 24 units — would allow for more affordable housing and would be and easier to finance and operate.
Even slow-growth councilman Kevin McKeown supported this giant turkey. He and others on the dais felt its “community benefits” outweighed the project’s negative aspects. Once again, council sold out the community for hotel worker’s jobs and four- dozen units of “affordable” housing.
Slow-growth advocates agree that a down-sized project with a smaller boutique hotel and less affordable housing would be more appropriate for the site. It could still have cafes, gardens, galleries, retail uses, parking and a public performance plaza/winter ice rink and make sense financially.
This development will spawn another Residocracy.org petition and after that, a referendum to permanently reduce heights and density citywide and limit council’s authority to approve inappropriate, outsized developments once and for all.
In the meantime, the Koolhaas design would look great on the Hines/Paper Mate site, surrounded by four acres of beautiful green space.
Small win for a small project
Northeast Neighbors won a small victory for residents two weeks ago.
Members of the neighborhood group’s board had appealed an Architectural Review Board (ARB) approval of Citibank branch at the corner of 23rd Street and Wilshire Boulevard on the site of a former flower shop and cafe.
The ARB (a City Hall commission of political appointees who review and approve new and remodeled construction projects for facade design, colors, materials, signage, landscaping and cosmetic appearance) was criticized for approving a project that fell far short of good design parameters and neighborhood compatibility.
The appeal process provided time to create a much improved design. The all-volunteer neighborhood group raised the bar in terms of how even small projects should be viewed and handled by City Hall. The result of the collaboration between Northeast Neighbors (NN) and property owner Century West Partners was a wider sidewalk and a more attractive and consumer friendly facility for Citibank.
The process was still fraught with problems from the get-go. For example, final plans for the revision were posted on the city website just hours before the meeting. Most of the planning commissioners reported that they hadn’t seen the final proposal until they arrived at council chambers. Nevertheless, the planning commission unanimously voted to uphold the appeal and voted 6-1 to approve the revised design for the remodel.
Northeast Neighbors Chair Amy Aukstikalnis said, “A better project was created as a result of our efforts, and it is a project that will set the standard for how remodels and redevelopment projects are looked at going forward along Wilshire. We should all feel proud of what we accomplished here.” Yawzuh! I fully agree.
The Citibank remodel demonstrates that with a little effort and cooperation, we can do better than the banal, mundane, uninviting and architecturally boring retail projects that have become standard fare all over town.
Those wanting to improve Lincoln Boulevard should especially take note of how Northeast Neighbors improved the pedestrian experience and created a more functional and attractive resident-friendly project with viable neighborhood benefits — without creating more congestion or traffic diversion onto adjacent residential streets.
City Hall’s hiring fiasco
Lastly, I was going to expound upon City Manager Rod Gould’s decision to hire then fire Elizabeth Riel as the City’s new, $155.000 per annum, public relations boss but I’m out of space. I’ll be able to do this fiasco justice next week. You all will have to hold on to your hats until then.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.