PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — Residents got their first look at a plan to build a large commercial and residential building on a site near a future light rail stop Tuesday night, some of them expressing doubts about the developer’s claim that the nearly 1-million-square-foot complex would have a moderate traffic impact.

The meeting was the first public hearing on a development concept for a 7-acre site located north of Olympic Boulevard between 26th and Stewart streets, across the street from the future Bergamot Station rail stop for the Exposition Light Rail Line. The developer is proposing to knock down an existing 200,000-square-foot light manufacturing facility to erect 969,000 square feet of commercial, residential, office space with an average height of 71 feet in its place.

The project concept envisions a complex larger than allowed under the city’s draft Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) and so will require approval from the Planning Commission and City Council before a deal can be struck. In order to win size exemptions from City Hall, the developer is proposing to offer “community benefits” such as affordable housing, public open spaces and cultural and arts uses.

Colin Shepherd, a senior vice president with Hines, the project developer, acknowledged that traffic is the main concern surrounding the proposed project. He said his company’s traffic analysis showed vehicle use after the project’s completion would be 12 percent less than what is allowed under the site’s current zoning. He noted the site’s proximity to the future Bergamot Station light rail stop and the project’s mixed-use design would limit car trips.

Any development project at the site, though, would increase traffic because the existing building is vacant. The project concept envisions about 579,000 square feet of creative office space, 330,000 square feet of residential space and 60,000 square feet of retail.

Neighborhood residents who spoke at the meeting said traffic congestion is already severe during peak driving hours and could be further impacted by other proposed developments in the area.

“I don’t see how you’re going to keep people who live in those buildings from driving a car,” said Liz Kane, a Santa Monica resident who lives near the project site.

She said she doubted the proximity to Bergamot Station and creating neighborhood-serving retail would significantly limit vehicle use.

“You’re saying people are never going to go outside of that building complex — that’s unbelievable, that’s like a jail,” she said.

Jing Yeo, special projects manager in City Hall’s Planning and Community Development Department, said City Hall hasn’t yet evaluated the developer’s traffic claims.

“It’s a lot of analysis that goes into coming up with those figures,” she said. A detailed look at traffic wouldn’t take place until after the City Council gives initial approval to the project concept.

Shepherd also said a significant benefit of his company’s project was the walkways and bike paths the complex would create on what is now one of the city’s largest industrial blocks.

One speaker, Howard Robinson, said the city needs a large-scale project if it wants to transform industrial areas into more pedestrian friendly environments.

“If the goal of the LUCE is to help break up these large industrial blocks … then we need large significant projects like this” that can afford to provide the desired community benefits, he said.

City Councilman Kevin McKeown attended the meeting and afterward questioned whether the developer’s proposed benefits would outweigh potential impacts on the neighborhood.

“We want a vital mixed-use gateway across from the future Expo station, with restaurants and retail, local jobs, and pedestrian and bicycle access, he said. “The question is how much new traffic we’re willing to risk in one of Santa Monica’s critical crossroads, and how much new commercial office space we still need.”

McKeown also said he was concerned the space designated for “cultural and arts uses” in the developer’s concept could end up becoming run-of-the-mill office space for entertainment companies.

“If we could guarantee true arts-related creative space, I’d be more comfortable, but often such promises fall prey to broad interpretation and we end up with creative accounting,” he said.

The Planing Commission is scheduled to look at the development agreement on Jan. 27, after which the City Council could consider the concept in February or March. At that point the council would have the option of directing city staff to continue negotiations with the developer or setting the proposal aside.

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