CITYWIDE — If you think of the public outcry over the Hines development project as a storm, we are likely in the eye of it.

Santa Monica’s City Council approved the 765,000-square-foot project for the corner of Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street in a 4 to 3 vote earlier this week despite a large protest against the project held on the steps of City Hall.

Last week’s meeting was postponed after 95 residents spoke, both against and in favor of the project, for over three hours during the public comment portion of the agenda item.

Next Tuesday, council will consider making the agreement official (and will likely do so) during a second reading of the agreement.

For residents opposed to the project, the approval of the second reading is the sound of a starter pistol firing.

Anti-Hines advocates can then officially push for a referendum vote — an election that would allow the residents to decide whether or not to nix the five proposed buildings and the $32 million in community benefits that come along with them.

It would also open the window for legal challenges to the council’s decision.

Residents opposed to the development, dubbed the Bergamot Transit Village, are planning to use both prongs in their attack on the project, which they say will cause too much traffic in an already-congested area.

Armen Melkonians, founder of Residocracy.org, a website designed to challenge council decisions, is kicking off his referendum push on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the SGI Building on Wilshire Boulevard at Sixth Street.

He will begin collecting official referendum signatures at the event and he’s going to need a lot of them. In order to force a vote, Melkonians and his team will have 30 days from next Tuesday to collect official signatures from 10 percent of Santa Monica’s registered voters.

As of Dec. 30, there were 65,230 registered voters in the city by the sea, said City Clerk Sarah Gorman. This means somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,500 signatures will be required to force a vote.

Melkonians wants more — twice the number required — because he anticipates that some of the signatures will be disqualified for various reasons, including signers not being registered to vote. He’s garnered more than 700 signatures to an e-petition (which is not official) with promises from the signers to deliver more than 5,000 official signatures.

“The average pledge is less than 10 signatures per person,” he said. “That’s a good thing because no one is making wild claims about how many they can bring in.”

They plan to go door-to-door and use social media to gain John Hancocks from residents.

If Melkonians’ team can get the necessary signatures, City Hall will have 88 days to arrange a special election. Between the 30 days allotted to the petitioners and the 88 days for City Hall to set up an election, it could occur as late as mid-June.

The agreement would be presented just as it was to council and if a majority of the residents vote in opposition to the project, Hines would be forced to build within the current zoning code set out for the area or reoccupy the current warehouse space.

Gorman said that the referendum process would be handled by the City Clerk’s Office, which she heads, and the City Attorney’s Office. The clerks office has gone through the referendum process in the past, but it would be a first for Gorman. City Hall has not yet estimated the cost or amount of work that would go into arranging a referendum vote, she said.

 

Court challenge

 

Last week, lawyers for Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a political group opposed to the development, sent council a 50-page document challenging the legality of the environmental impact report that was performed on the Hines proposal.

A post on the SMCLC website calls the letter “a precursor to a lawsuit.”

The Daily Press attempted to reach SMCLC representatives but did not hear back by presstime.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires City Hall to study and disclose environmental impacts that might be caused by proposed projects.

Community groups can file a CEQA challenge if they feel, for example, that the environmental impact studies missed something or were too short.

SMCLC’s letter includes three major complaints, with several issues that fall underneath those.

One claim is that too few alternatives were studied for the project. They say that an option that included more residential units should have been studied.

At Tuesday’s meeting, city planners responded to this claim, noting that a more residential project was studied and found to be financial unfeasible.

The other claims were that the traffic impacts were not properly analyzed and that the project does not align with standards set forth by previous council-approved plans for the area.

Traffic and planning officials defended their process for the record on Tuesday night.

If council officially approves the agreement next week, SMCLC or other community groups would have anywhere from 30 to 180 days to sue depending on several factors.

A CEQA challenge would not block the developer from beginning construction, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. The petitioner would have to ask the court for a stay, she said.

City officials keep detailed records in case anyone opts to challenge the council’s actions.

“We try to build a record that demonstrates compliance with all legal requirements,” said Moutrie. “This includes those imposed by CEQA. This work has many aspects. One particularly important aspect is the crafting of findings that explain and support (City Hall’s) action.”

 

dave@smdp.com