CIVIC CENTER — To the list of developments planned for the Civic Center Auditorium and surroundings, it’s finally time to add the Early Childhood Education Center, a learning lab for Santa Monica College that has been several years in the making.

Planning commissioners approved a change to the Civic Center Specific Plan Wednesday to allow the center, designed in 2008, to span 16,000 square feet rather than the 12,500 originally built into the CCSP.

The proposed expansion came when SMC designers realized that the 12,500 square foot limitations in the CCSP wouldn’t fit all of the classes and programming planned for the lab site.

With this change, City Hall and SMC can finally begin the process of getting the project approved through the various channels of public process, including the Architectural Review Board and eventually the Coastal Commission, and make the center a reality.

“We’d like this sooner rather than later,” Betsy Hiteshew, the former director of the early childhood education program at SMC, told commissioners. “We’ve been waiting 20 years.”

The center is a joint project between SMC and City Hall that was included in the Civic Center Specific Plan, which was adopted in 2005. It will be designed, built and operated by the college as a lab for the early childhood education certificate program.

To date, SMC is one of only two colleges in the state that have such a program but do not have a lab to educate students, said Don Girard, director of government relations and institutional communications for SMC.

“This will be an instructional facility that will fill a need for both the college and the community,” Girard said.

One hundred pre-school age children will learn and play at the facility, which will also be equipped with a conference room and other amenities, according to a staff report.

City Hall is expected to commit $5.63 million in general fund money to get the project off the ground, and the remaining $7 million will come from Measure S bond money.

The government funding will need to be approved at the June 21 City Council meeting when the proposed budget gets adopted.

For the most part, commissioners had no problem with the changes, but safety concerns were raised about the width of the sidewalk — the minimum 15-foot width wasn’t enough, worried Commissioner Hank Koning — and about how the project would integrate with the numerous other developments occurring within yards of the proposed center.

Putting 100 preschool students near a busy street with a thin sidewalk that will be populated by boisterous Santa Monica High School students walking to and from classes and the proposed bike path mere feet away could be a problem, commissioners said.

“I’m not sure 15 feet is adequate given the joint use project and the bike path going in here,” Koning said. “I wonder if it should be expressed in the language in here.”

Parking, a never-ending source of complication in Santa Monica, also reared its ugly head. The center would take away surface parking right next to the Civic Auditorium, right when City Hall is preparing to invest nearly $46 million in revamping the aging landmark to become a world-class performance venue.

The management company involved, the Nederlander Group, required 1,000 parking spaces as part of its contract, either in the surface parking lot at the Civic Center, or in the adjacent structure.

The Early Childhood Education Center will take up the corner at Fourth Street and Civic Center Drive, removing 107 parking spots from the surface lot that’s there now. An additional 50 spaces will be taken up during construction for staging, said Karen Ginsberg, assistant director for community and cultural services for City Hall.

On top of that, the center will need parking for its employees, as well as a drop-off/pick-up point for parents to transport their small children to and from the center.

A parking study presented to the City Council in March showed that parking wouldn’t be a problem, Ginsberg said after the meeting, but staff told commissioners Wednesday that as surface parking is removed or demand for parking increases, the question of a subterranean parking structure might need to be reconsidered.

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