DOWNTOWN — While still in the infancy stages, a hotel project in development-weary Santa Monica could face an uphill battle of opposition from residents.
Maxser and Co., which owns a seven-story historically landmarked commercial tower at 710 Wilshire Blvd., just last month got a glimpse of what resistance may come when Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and four neighborhood groups fired off a letter to the Planning Commission opposing a plan to convert the building into a hotel and construct an eight-story wing that would have 240 guest rooms.
The Planning Commission in June voted to recommend that the City Council initiate the development agreement negotiation and review process. The council is anticipated to take up the matter in September and provide direction to staff as to whether to proceed with a development agreement or not.
“It’s beauty and the beast,” Diana Gordon, who heads the coalition, said. “It’s an eight-story inappropriately (big) building overwhelming the landmark structure and bringing with it huge infrastructure pressure … we’re talking about huge increases in water, sewage, power, traffic, and pollution that has not been meaningfully addressed.”
The coalition and the neighborhood organizations last year supported a ballot measure that sought to limit commercial development in the city to 75,000 square feet a year.
But Architect Howard Laks said that the existing Spanish Colonial Revival style building, which was built in 1928, is about four feet taller than the proposed annex, and notes that the height and size are consistent with the Santa Monica General Plan for the specific area.
“Concerns regarding building scale and mass will be addressed as the design process proceeds,” Laks said.
He adds that hotel uses generate fewer vehicle trips per square foot than office, retail and residential uses and avoids normal peak congestion traffic patterns. The project is also well-suited for a Transportation Demand Management program that will reduce trips by hotel employees and guests, Laks said.
The new hotel will have 284 rooms between the existing and new buildings and will have approximately 26,000 square feet of retail and 5,200 square feet of ground-floor open-air retail paseo. The landmarked building will have a restaurant while the new structure will have a coffee shop.
“The site is currently under-utilized and provides an opportunity to revitalize the surrounding area with a vibrant pedestrian environment at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Seventh Street,” Laks said. “The location seems appropriate for a moderate-priced hotel, pedestrian-oriented ground-floor retail uses, public open spaces, and outdoor and sidewalk dining.”
He said that the project team has heard from city officials and the tourism sector that there is a need for more moderately-priced hotels in the city.
Alison Best, the director of sales and marketing for the Convention and Visitors Bureau said not all tourists are looking to stay in a full-service luxury property.
“It does gives us more options,” she said. “The project sounds like it fits in well with the city’s overall plan to have this mixed-use amenities close to where people live.”
Residents who have expressed opposition said they fear the impact the project will have on the neighborhood and question the mass of the proposed new wing.
Gordon said she believes the coalition would support the project if it only involved adaptively re-using the landmarked building.
“Our research indicates that the environmental benefits of adaptive reuse far outweighs new construction,” she said.
Laks has worked on multiple historic preservation projects in the past, including designing The Lobster restaurant next to the landmarked Santa Monica Pier sign, and currently the rehabilitation of 2001 Main St., home of Horizons West Surf Shop.
The coalition has also urged that city officials not enter into a development agreement.
Ted Winterer, who was one of the authors of the 2008 ballot measure and the lone planning commissioner to vote against the development agreement recommendation last month, said he believes the development agreement process is broken right now because of a lack of enforcement of the terms outlined in contracts that have been approved.
“I think they should be infrequent if not rare and we are entering into too many of them without stepping back and without taking a look at the cumulative impact and having some public discussion,” he said.
Winterer added that while he favors a hotel at the landmarked site, he believes the project is too big and exceeds height limits that is anticipated under the Land Use and Circulation Element for that area.
“I think the new addition completely diminishes the visual authority of the landmark structure,” he said.
City staff has also voiced concerns about the project’s height and massing, though they acknowledge that the number of units and floor area has been reduced since its initial conception. Both the Landmarks and Planning commissions have expressed similar concerns.
Terry O’Day, the chairman of the Planning Commission, said he has seen improvements in the project since it was originally presented, such as creating a pedestrian-friendly environment on the Seventh Street side of the project.
“The relationship to the landmark building in the current version is much more accentuated than in previous versions of this project,” O’Day said. “It’s also significantly more articulated.”
Some commissioners also questioned the public benefits that the project applicant is proposing will come with the hotel, including meeting the city’s need for moderately priced hotel rooms close to Downtown. Winterer said that the only public benefit he sees so far with the project is the enhancement of city revenues.
Other public benefits listed include enhancing the safety and ambiance of Reed Park by encouraging guests and employee use of the resource, creating employment opportunities in the city, and preserving a historic landmark.
O’Day said he believes the project is a good opportunity to protect a landmark.
“I think having affordable hotel rooms is something that people in the city want and generally this looks like a good location to place hotel rooms,” he said. “It’s one of the most walkable neighborhoods in L.A. County and the traffic impacts would be much lighter here than anywhere I can imagine.”