CITYWIDE — A proposal to allow up to four alternative fuel vehicle showrooms on the Third Street Promenade hit a speed bump Wednesday at the Planning Commission with commissioners split on whether the idea was acceptable or a few bolts short.

Unlike traditional dealerships, the showrooms would be relatively small with a maximum of 25 feet of frontage on the promenade itself.

Only five vehicles would be available on-site at any given time. The rest of the space would be used for demonstration technology, education and meeting space so that customers could work with sales people to design custom cars.

Vehicles could only come in and out of the showroom between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, except holidays, and only with the approval of a city parking and traffic engineer.

There would be no car maintenance on site.

Other cities that have allowed such showrooms in shopping malls don’t even require specific permits, said senior planner Paul Foley.

“The electric vehicles are considered analogous to electronic equipment,” he said.

Other areas, including a shopping mall in Century City and the mixed-use Santana Row in San Jose, Calif. have seen success with similar installations, Foley said.

“It will draw more customers than some uses and fewer than others,” he said. “I do think it will help activate the north end of the promenade because it will be a totally new use in that end of the promenade.”

Some business interests have voiced concern that the northern end of the promenade is suffering a slow death thanks to the remodel of Santa Monica Place and more attention being paid to the south end of the popular shopping area.

Commissioners Gerda Newbold, Richard McKinnon and Jennifer Kennedy aligned against the concept, calling it out of place and unfriendly to the pedestrian ambiance already present.

“To me, this is a car dealership, and I don’t think it needs to be on the promenade,” Newbold said. “It’s Las Vegas-ish.”

McKinnon agreed, saying that it clashed with the other uses already on the promenade, particularly by putting a male-focused business like a car showroom on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare.

“It’s quite different from what we had, and I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even proponents of the idea seemed short on reasons to approve it — Chair Jim Ries, who voted for the measure, said he felt there was little stopping it.

“I’m not a big fan of this idea, but I sense that it’s imminent, so I will vote yes,” Ries said.

That may be because the idea was met with gusto when originally proposed at the Aug. 9 City Council meeting by council members Terry O’Day and Bob Holbrook as a way to bring life to the north end of the promenade while reinforcing Santa Monica’s reputation as an environmentally-conscious city.

If denied at the Planning Commission level, the matter can be appealed back to the City Council.

Perceived notions of inevitability aside, commissioners expressed a concern that the language allowing the showrooms was overly restrictive in that it singled out only electric cars for display.

While none on the dais wanted fossil fuel vehicles on the promenade, they also wanted to keep the door open to future innovation.

“I don’t consider hybrids or flex fuel vehicles ‘cutting edge’ any more because they’ve been around for a while,” Ries said. “There could be something in the future that could be more cutting edge.”

Staff was left to find a way to craft that requirement into the proposal.

The electric car showroom was put in neutral until it can appear before the City Council, but Santa Monica has a long-term relationship with alternative fuel vehicles.

The city was home to the manufacturer Coda until the company moved its showroom to the Westfield Mall in Century City, and it hosted a National Plug In Day parade Sunday with 180 electric cars, motorcycles and trucks participating.

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