CITY HALL — Yahoo! Center’s controversial development agreement amendment to legitimize a decade of parking space leasing that city planners have declared a violation will move forward to the City Council with a host of cautionary notes from uneasy planning commissioners after their meeting Wednesday night.
The amendment seeks to put in writing what the owners of the Yahoo! Center, Equity Office Properties, felt they had the right to do all along — lease 1,053 unused parking spaces from a gargantuan underground parking lot to off-site businesses and organizations that need parking.
A study done over the first two days of December showed that even if the center had enough tenants to fill it, which it currently does not, there would be sufficient parking for all tenants even with the leased spaces taken out of the equation.
Additionally, the amendment would kill a provision that currently requires tenant employers to provide free parking to employees. It would also implement a traffic demand management plan applicable to all tenants, rather than the six largest as required under city code.
Both remedies, said attorney Dale Goldsmith, embody the spirit of the newly-adopted Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) as ways to cut down on traffic and improve the city.
Santa Monica residents, however, feel that the property owner is gaming the system by making money off of what was originally envisioned as a public benefit, or a perk to get City Hall to agree to make an exception in the zoning code for the business park’s development when the agreement was first signed in 1981.
They contend that the parking is supposed to be made available for low or no cost to employees of tenant businesses, residents who wish to use the adjacent park on weekends and holidays or to those who want to use the community room which was built into the development.
As for sticking to the LUCE, some felt honoring the development agreement was the only way to accomplish that goal.
“At the heart of the LUCE is the sanctity of the development agreement. It is to be measured, monitored and enforced,” said Santa Monica resident Catherine Eldridge. “If we do not speak to the enforcement of this particular contract violation, how can we as a city expect to enforce any future violations, and how can the public have faith in the city or the LUCE and promises it made?”
The controversy left planning commissioners, who traditionally oppose free parking and want to promote the shared-parking provisions of the LUCE, unsure of how to proceed.
Although the parking spaces are now looked on as a problem, they were considered a community benefit in the car-happy 1980s, and there was no clear replacement for that presented at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’m not worried about shared parking. The community room is dandy, and the park is a great asset, but what the community wanted then was this parking,” said Commissioner Ted Winterer. “I’m concerned that we built out beyond the zoning, but what do we get in return?”
That was a question that Goldsmith was unable to answer.
Try as they might to determine how much money EOP was bringing in from the rentals, how much in taxes it was paying on those rentals or even how much a new traffic demand management plan — currently envisioned by the company as a replacement community benefit — would cost, the answer was the same: they don’t know.
Even the identities of the companies renting out those spaces were unclear.
“Those kinds of financial numbers are kind of basic,” said Commissioner Gerda Newbold.
Of particular concern to some commissioners was a traffic concept called AVR, or average vehicle ridership. That relates to ridesharing, specifically how many people travel in one car.
The goal under the development agreement was to average one-and-a-half people per vehicle, but the applicant had no information on the current AVRs for each tenant business.
“We don’t know if this is something we’re already getting,” Winterer said.
And while commissioners seemed to want to bring the issue back when the applicant might have more specific answers about financials and other parking details, each was surprised to find that time had run out.
Deputy City Attorney Barry Rosenbaum informed the commission that code provided that a recommendation had to go forward to the City Council within 30 days of the initial hearing notices.
Because the previous Planning Commission meeting on April 27 at which the Yahoo! Center development agreement was going to be considered was canceled, that left only 10 days before time expired, and the commission lost its ability to put any stamp at all on the new amendment.
The five commissioners voted to recommend that the City Council deny the amendment unless two sets of requirements were met.
The first, deemed “critical,” included an analysis of the current AVR for the Yahoo! Center tenants, inclusion of a compliance clause that spelled out fines for violations, the amount of revenue made from parking, how much it would cost to apply a TDM and proof that EOP had paid taxes on the parking revenues it had received.
The second tier was more extensive, including provisions to post the development agreement terms, increase bike parking and prohibit parking in the surrounding neighborhoods among others.
After the meeting, Goldsmith said his client would be working to gather the information requested by the commissioners.
An undercurrent throughout the meeting was the fate of the 450 spaces that EOP leases to the Saint John’s Health Center, a nearby hospital that has also seen controversy over its development agreement.
Residents fear that if this agreement is allowed to go through, it will pave the way for the hospital to avoid building a subterranean parking garage which is part of its development agreement.
The two must be considered separately, Goldsmith said.
“I understand that some of the people here tonight have concerns about Saint John’s,” he said. “I want to point out that this is a separate application which needs to and should be considered on its own merits, independent of Saint John’s.”