MID-CITY — Residents of Santa Monica’s Mid-City neighborhood were surprised last week to find that a grocery store proposed on the eastern end of Wilshire Boulevard had been redesigned to preclude the need for public hearings, preventing any opportunity to get their concerns about traffic and parking addressed by public officials.
Fresh & Easy, a discount retail chain, announced plans in February to move into the spot vacated by Magnolia Audio Video store in February to mixed reaction by residents who welcomed the idea of a store within walking distance of their homes but had concerns about off-site parking required for the store and the traffic inherent with new development.
Developers seem to have found a way to solve one of those problems while avoiding any kind of public discussion on the other issues raised at a public meeting in March.
The store, originally presented at 13,000 square feet, will be reduced so that the developer will no longer have to look further than the property to provide code-required parking, said Russell Bunim, the city planner in charge of the project.
The development had included plans to find 17 additional spots at nearby 2811 Wilshire Blvd. and another 12 at 3201 Wilshire Blvd., which neighbors found disturbing.
City Hall is exploring the idea of renting the additional retail space for $1 per month to store emergency supplies for the area, said Jason Harris, manager of the Economic Development Division.
At the same time, Fresh & Easy has dropped plans to sell alcohol at the store, circumventing a need to get a conditional use permit from City Hall for the sale.
“We altered the footprint of our store to make it a better fit for the location,” said Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesperson for the company. “We believe this is a great spot for a neighborhood market like Fresh & Easy. We look forward to bringing delicious and wholesome food to the neighborhood and providing a great alternative for people looking for more affordable options.”
Although that solves two problems raised by some neighbors — who dislike the idea of people parking blocks away from the store and don’t want another alcohol sales location — it also means that Fresh & Easy will not have to go before the Planning Commission to seek the parking variance or conditional use permit.
It’s a problem for Joseph Fitzsimons, the vice president of Sullivan Dituri Co., a real estate management company that has a property immediately south of the site.
Fitzsimons worries about delivery trucks going to and from the grocery store, which are often loud and cause traffic.
“Apparently, they figured out that if they applied under a certain square footage, they don’t need a variance for parking and if they’re not looking to sell alcohol there’s no CUP and no public hearing to address everyone’s concerns,” Fitzsimons said.
It’s also disconcerting to residents who had previously thought the Fresh & Easy store to be dead in the water.
Gregg Heacock, head of neighborhood association Mid-City Neighbors, found out on Friday in a phone call with city planners that this was no longer the case.
Because the project can now be approved administratively, there’s little to be done, which frustrates Heacock because it feels as though City Hall is pushing neighborhood leaders and their concerns to the sideline.
Heacock had problems with the development because he felt it would cause additional traffic if it couldn’t provide more parking and better access to what parking it had.
Furthermore, he disliked the Fresh & Easy business model, which keeps costs low by cutting out cashiers, instead providing mostly unmanned check-out counters for customers.
“It’s changing the character of the service we receive and the quality of businesses that serve us,” Heacock said.
The company has also come under fire by its employees in the past several years for resisting calls to unionize at the stores.