The City Council earlier this week wrestled with the Bergamot Transit Village Center, a proposed 960,000 square-foot development proposed for the former 7.16 acre Paper Mate pen site bounded by 26th Street, Olympic Boulevard and Stewart Street.

Houston-based developer Hines purchased the “gateway” property in August, 2007 for $75 million. It’s across Olympic from a future Expo Light Rail stop and the Bergamot Art Complex.

Hines executive vice president Colin Shepherd gave a 10-minute presentation on the proposed project, complete with site plans and renderings of proposed buildings, streets and green spaces. With a few exceptions, everyone despised it.

Village? No way. Hines’ “village” consists of 566,573 square feet of “creative” office space, ground floor retail and 344 units of housing dressed as a 1960s-era Orange County business park complete with grid layout and five, large, boxy buildings — some as high as 86 feet. Residential blocks were segregated from bland office blocks. A round thematic structure that looked like a giant water tank or toilet bowl commanded the corner of 26th and Olympic.

Council members and residents alike complained that the hideous project failed to connect with the neighborhood, the buildings weren’t attractive or humanly scaled and it was neither particularly pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly.

Shepherd told council this concept was in the works for four years and in compliance with the new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE). He assured everyone that the project wouldn’t generate traffic as workers and residents would gladly give up their cars and use light rail and bicycles, which is delusional in my book. A new signalized intersection at Olympic east of 26th alone will surely exacerbate the horrendous traffic in the area even more.

Did Shepherd think he could throw slop on the plate and because Hines and its associates had raised thousands of campaign dollars for five out of seven council members, this would be swallowed with gusto? I seriously question whether Hines (whose international reputation as a top-notch developer and property manager took a big hit with this mess) is capable of delivering a satisfactory project. Any chance of an exciting development now seems remote.

But instead of wrangling about articulated walls and bike racks, this project’s basic concept should be totally rethought. For example, keep the height limit at the present zoning — 45 feet — to reduce the “village’s” density by 40 percent or about 500,000 square feet, not the nearly 1 million Hines proposes.

Make it primarily residential. Around 500 housing units could be built on the site along with about 30,000 square feet of real neighborhood-serving retail such as markets, a coffee house and dry cleaner. The surrounding office complexes — Lantana, Agensys, Yahoo! Center, Water Garden, MTV, to name a few — have little or no residential components.

A mostly residential project would leave plenty of land for green space. Parking for 1,000 cars — half of what is proposed — would suffice. And there would be a similar reduction in motor vehicle trips. Housing would complement existing and future neighborhood office, creative and production/studio projects. With a combination of market rate, affordable, art/studio workspace housing, you can’t get any more sustainable than being within walking or biking distance of your job.

Hines contributions to City Council campaigns loomed like a giant shadow over the discussion about the Bergamot Transit Village’s poor design and dubious community benefits. After council members refused to implement residents’ requests for additional disclosure of campaign contributions a few weeks ago, a citizens group formed to research and publish developer campaign contributions.

The Santa Monica Transparency Project (SMTP) consisting of people from the Santa Monica Democratic Club, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, citywide neighborhood groups and Common Cause, collected and analyzed political donations to council members from the last two elections.

Hines donated $14,925 to Terry O’Day, $13,725 to Bob Holbrook, $4,975 to Gleam Davis, $3,998 to Pam O’Connor and $4,250 to Richard Bloom (in 2008). In March 2008, Hines contributors retired O’Connor’s entire $4,600 2006 campaign debt. Some donations were given directly to council candidates, while others were submitted on the candidates’ behalf to help pay for mailers. Councilmembers Bobby Shriver and Kevin McKeown didn’t accept donations from Hines, SMTP reported. Shriver said they never offered him any money.

Holbrook bristled that $13,725 wouldn’t buy his vote, saying he had that much if not more in his bank account, while O’Connor rambled on with a detailed account of her “ex parte” communications with Hines representatives. O’Connor seemed to be rubbing everyone’s face in what to disclose as if to say, “You brought this up. Now, you’ll get all of it.”

SMTP disclosed that as an independent expenditure, Hines and its attorneys also contributed $17,500 to a series of controversial and “deceptive” campaign mailers from Santa Monicans for Quality Government that featured two council members who were recently elected.

Sit tight. This saga will go on for another four years.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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