Development in Santa Monica can be a stressful process but Tuesday night the discussion about the Plaza at Santa Monica literally aged planning director David Martin.

The Oct. 13 discussion began on Martin’s birthday but lasted into the early hours of Wednesday morning following hours of public comment and council debate that swung from absolute gridlock to near unanimous agreement for a reduced size proposal.

By about 1:30 a.m. council moved forward with a project that will have to cut 15 percent of its size and lose 100,000 square-feet of office space, but could potentially retain all 148 feet of its proposed height.

The meeting Tuesday night was a “float up” and was designed to solicit feedback on the proposal. It was an opportunity for the council to hear community opinions and the best-case scenario for the project Tuesday would have been approval of an environmental study. Ultimately, council did approve such a study but only after modifying the project and they directed staff to include several smaller alternate proposals in the scope of the study.

The City of Santa Monica owns the property located along Arizona Avenue between 4th and 5th streets, giving the city unique leverage to control development on the parcel. The development team was tasked with creating a project that was economically viable while meeting several public objectives including ground-floor activation, exceptional architecture, project flexibility and public access to views.

The development team had proposed a 12-story (148 feet), 420,000 square-foot mixed-use development including a 195 room hotels, 206,800 square-feet of office space, 42,200 square-feet of retail space, 48 affordable housing units, 12,000 square-feet of cultural space, 51,000 square-feet of public open space, and 1,143 parking spaces in a four-level underground parking lot.

Project opponents said the project was too large, out of scale with the neighborhood and would generate too much traffic for the area.

Scott Kelso said the only reason for community benefits is to offset detriments, meaning the project is by default bad for the community.

“Who are we kidding? If the city can’t develop its own property within the established zoning guidelines, we are looking at a scenario of city staff mixing up, drinking and telling everyone else to drink the dystopian Kool Aid with an extra dose for the golden goose i.e. the city council, to drink up and lay the golden egg,” he said.

Project supporters said the building would revitalize the neighborhood and compared the proposal to successful projects. International comparisons were made to New York’s Bryant Park or High Line parks and local comparisons used the Promenade as an example of successful redevelopment.

“I support most aspects of this project, most particularly the affordable housing, which we definitely need more of, we all agree on that I think, and the good union hotel jobs that tie in with our community support for a living wage ordinance that includes a hotel living wage,” Sonia Sultan said.

While in support of the overall project, Sultan did criticize the amount of office space, saying more hotel rooms would be a better choice.

“A hotel here will also provide significant public revenues that we need and the council can use that to support open space and cultural uses at the Civic Auditorium site,” she said.

Council debate quickly focused on the proposed office component with some councilmembers pushing for elimination of all office space.

Mayor Kevin McKeown was particularly vocal in his opposition to construction of new office space downtown.

“As much office space as we could build here or anywhere nearby would be in demand,” he said. “It would be filled, but just because we could build it and we could fill it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for our downtown.”

Councilmembers Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day both opposed wholesale elimination of office space. They said some office space would be needed to make the project fiscally possible and that office space would help to activate the other kinds of uses envisioned for the area. They said eliminating office space converted the project into nothing more than another large-scale hotel and said scrapping the project entirely would be a preferable alternative to a single-use building.

“Pulling out parts of it as is being suggested has the potential to completely unravel the project,” O’Day said.

McKeown grew visibly frustrated with discussion that he felt failed to rein in the project. He said the council had failed to cut the size in past meetings and said it made no sense to move forward with a project that he felt wouldn’t pass final review.

“I just gotta say flat out at 148 feet and 428,000 square-feet, it’s too damn big and I won’t vote for that,” he said. “So we’re not going to get consensus on what you see up there on the screen, I guarantee it and I don’t think I’m the only person who feels this way. So lets start to really work and tell the developer how to make this project function for the city.”

McKeown, Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich and Councilman Tony Vazquez voted for a motion that would have required a two-story reduction in size and mandated removal of all office space, but they were unable to secure a fourth vote.

In voting to retain some office space, Winterer said he wasn’t a fan of the office component but said he wanted the council to vote on a comprehensive measure that would make it clear what the council wanted for the entire project.

With Councilwoman Pam O’Connor absent and the council deadlocked, O’Day suggested a compromise to cut from the building’s overall size but allow the developers to propose how that reduction would occur. Davis modified that proposal to include a 50 percent reduction in overall office space.

By the end of the night, council settled on a set of revisions to the project that removed 50 percent of the office space, equaling 100,000 square-feet but only reduced the overall size of the building by 63,000 square-feet (15 percent of the total). To achieve that reduction, council allowed the developer to convert up to 37,000 square-feet of office space to another use with several councilmembers acknowledging the most likely use for that space would be additional hotel units.

With the maximum size now set, council asked for an environmental review that will also evaluate the impacts of no project, a smaller version of the approved project, a new project with less complex construction (essentially an entire redesign) and a possible park.

Staff said it will take between three and six months to begin the review process but said the public will have an opportunity to provide input on the scope of the review in the future.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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