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Beach Club Supporters Win Over City Planners

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

April 7 -- After a blitzkrieg of grassroots organizing, the Planning Commission was hit with a volley of emails, phone calls and public comments Wednesday urging it to approve the City’s plans for a beach club at 415 PCH, while opponents of the project turned up the heat with their own last-minute challenges.

Once the dust had settled, the Commission unanimously approved the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and three permits the City needs to proceed with its plans for the historic renovation of the former Marion Davies estate near Santa Monica’s northern edge.

Neighboring homeowners -- who have threatened to sue the City unless it meets a list of conditions that includes installing a traffic signal at the entrance and reducing the size of rooms for public gatherings -- said they will appeal the commission’s decision.

The vote went swiftly and without a hitch after Chair Jay P. Johnson lauded the rehab of the earthquake-battered property as “a world class project that will further enhance the reputation of our city.”

Friends of 415, a grassroots group organized by the Santa Monica Conservancy’s former president, Joel Brand, gathered more than 500 signatures in less than three days to counter the objections of the project’s neighbors.

“Friends of 415 urges you to approve the visionary public beach club at 415 PCH as proposed, without any further delays,” Brand emailed the commissioners. “It would be a travesty to allow this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be squandered.”

Judging from the turnout Wednesday night, when 13 beach club supporters spoke, a large number for a Planning Commission meeting, it looked like Brand’s efforts paid off.

Commissioner Darrell Clarke said he’d received “more email on this subject than anything that’s ever been before the commission.”

But attorneys for the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association, who fear the proposed club will draw more homeless to their beachfront neighborhood, (PBPOA) had been busy, too. (see story)

They’d faxed two multi-page letters to the commission late Wednesday afternoon, putting City officials on notice that the neighbors to the south of the proposed project were prepared to attack the EIR.

The attorneys also notified officials that the homeowners weren’t going to let an alleged violation of Proposition S, a 1990 initiative to halt new beachfront hotels and restaurants, go unchallenged.

The last minute faxes threw the commission’s schedule off. Johnson directed City consultants and attorneys to gather in a side room for an hour to figure out how best to respond to the latest broadside from the homeowners’ attorneys.

Barry Rosenbaum, the lawyer in charge of land use issues for the City Attorney’s office, wasn’t convinced the opponents of the project had complied with the timeline for submitting their correspondence, and speculated they might have “exhausted their administrative remedies” with the last-minute tactic.

After the impromptu conference, consultants for the City concurred that the EIR properly addresses all the issues raised by the letters and indicated that the commission was free to act.

Supporters of the public beach club thanked the Annenberg Foundation for nearly $30 million in funding to renovate the facility, extolled the “gem” of a project and decried what they saw as efforts to stall or even “kill” the public beach club.

Beth Leder-Pack said she couldn’t believe “the height to which NIMBYism can soar.” Still, she’s confident that the City will prevail and “we’ll be having a drink with Frank Gruber,” who supported the project in his latest column in The Lookout, when the project is done.

Mike Deasy, a member of the Santa Monica Conservancy, called the rehab “priceless,” saying the project reminded him of the City’s motto -- Populus felix in urbe felici. We are “a lucky people and a very, very lucky city,” Deasy said.

Even PBPOA President Chuck Levey got into the spirit. He opened his remarks with a statement of support for the project and said had he known of Brand’s petition, he would have signed it.

But Levey went on to call the City’s “conditions” governing the operations of the proposed project “illusory” and said the neighbors’ association still insists on a binding contract signed by the City.

Earlier, he said that the contract must contain wording guaranteeing that if the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) doesn’t approve a signal at the site, the City has to stop the project.

Homeowners’ attorney William Delvac of Latham and Watkins added that his clients’ threats to challenge the EIR and sue the City over an alleged Proposition S violation will be dropped if the City signs the written commitment the homeowners want.

The two challenges that were raised most frequently by opponents to the City’s plans, and countered by supporters, dealt with the traffic light at the entrance to the parking lot and food service at the site.

Delvac said that the City had insisted on a signal as a condition for development of a beach hotel in 1990 at the same location and was being hypocritical by saying the light shouldn’t be required now.

He also said that the City used Proposition S requirements against restaurants the city opposed, but it wasn’t abiding by them now.

“When you don’t like a project, you impose a condition without limitation,” Delvac said, “but when you do like a project, the City says it has no control.

“You’re playing it both ways, and it’s just not fair,” he said.

But Rosenbaum pointed out that the City had followed almost the same procedure in the case of the signal they’d asked for in 1990. The City had given the hotel developers a way out of the requirement if CALTRANS didn’t approve the light then, just as it was asking the Planning Commission now to approve of a statement of overriding consideration for the very same reason, Rosenbaum said.

And there were plenty of rejoinders to the challenge that the 415 PCH violates Proposition S.

Bruce Cameron read an interview with Sharon Gilpin, author of Prop. S, published in The Lookout. Gilpin contended the law’s original intent was to limit large developments on the beachfront, such as large hotels and restaurants.

Prop S, she said, was “designed with a scalpel” to ensure that only the large developments could be limited.

“A beach club is not what they (voters) had in mind to guard against when the law was passed,” Gilpin said.

And former Mayor Michael Feinstein said that he was there when Proposition S and 415 PCH came before the city council in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

Calling the legalization of hotels on the beach in 1984 a step toward a “monoculture at the beach,” Feinstein said “Prop S came forward and was approved by the residents to ensure that we would continue to have diversity.

“It was not aimed at shutting down beach clubs for public access, it was aimed at ensuring that the whole beach wasn’t only luxury hotels but ended up being a mix,” he said.

Feinstein went on to say that the plans for 415 PCH were guided by the same spirit, and pointed out the irony that if neighbors kill the current project and the state takes it over, it may be sold to the highest bidder -- a scenario contrary to the will of the voters when they passed Prop S and rejected a luxury hotel on the site.

In the end, it didn’t seem the commissioners needed much convincing.

The plans to put in a high-end hotel in the 1990’s were “antithetical to what our community wants and expects,” Commissioner Julie Lopez-Dad said.

She said she was impressed by a supporter’s observation that there’s a distinction between kitchens and restaurants. “It’s very difficult to make that leap to this is a violation of Prop S,” she said.

Dad said she was encouraged by the City’s negotiations with CALTRANS to get a signal installed. She called the “weekend light” the State favors “a great starting point.”

And she added that “community benefit” ought to be weighed in the balance of factors.

“We’re finally getting something that will work for all of the city,” Dad summed up before the unanimous vote of support.

Only Levey seemed displeased as the meeting broke up. When asked if his organization plans to file an appeal, he answered with an emphatic “Of course!”

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