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Commission Denies, Then Approves Santa Monica Post Office Conversion
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
2802 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310)828-7525 -

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

April 25, 2016 -- With the Santa Monica Planning Commission unable to break a 3-3 deadlock (a technical denial) on a proposal to convert the historic downtown post office into a private business office, it appeared owner Skydance Media would have to take its case to the City Council on appeal.

Then something unusual happened.

After a brief break, Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi said his reservations about what he considered to be not enough parking could be resolved (at least enough for him to change his vote) if Skydance made a guarantee.

Skydance was already required to sign a lease for a yet-to-be determined property to place 23 off-site parking spaces. Fonda-Bonardi wanted a restriction on the property that it could only be used for the parking spaces.

“I just need to know that on any afternoon, there are always 23 spaces available for the parking lot,” said Fonda-Bonardi, who said he worried about "fungible spaces" and sub-leasing of the property.

Fonda-Bonardi’s switch made the final vote 4-2, good enough for approval. Not everybody was pleased.

Commissioner Gerda Newbold, who had voted for the project the first time, said Fonda-Bonardi’s amendment was “ridiculous,” but she would support it if it meant the project would be approved.

Commission Chair Richard McKinnon and Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy refused to budge.

Among their objections was that a five-foot fence would be built around the property in the heart of Downtown Santa Monica on Fifth Street off Arizona Avenue.

City staff told commissioners they had no authority to object to the fence. Because of procedural technicalities, the inclusion of the fence was up to the Landmarks Commission, which approved it in December.

This did not persuade McKinnon, who said the fence violated the Land Use & Circulation Element (LUCE) of the City’s General Plan, which he said is “all about the pedestrian experience and the openness.”

“When you put up that fence, it changes the whole way that site has been used historically with people flowing around and up into the building,” McKinnon said.

“There just can’t be any argument about that. That’s privatizing space that was previously public.”

Skydance says the fence is needed because the post office sign will remain on the property due to an agreement with the City, and this would mean many people would enter the property for mail service.

As it appeared the project was going to be rejected because of the fence, some commissioners became concerned. Jason Parry, a commissioner since 2009, said this would be a rare negative moment for the panel.

“This is a departure in our track record of handling things in what I consider a responsible and appropriate manner,” he said.

Nina Fresco, a former landmarks commissioner, said she did not like the fence, but rejecting the proposal would be a missed opportunity for a good adaptive reuse of a property that was named a historic landmark by the City two years ago.

Project plans include construction of a 14,490 square-foot addition with three stories reaching a height of 32 feet.

“The proposed building mass will maintain the historic symmetry of the building by extending up the rear building elevation, wrapping the corner and creating a partial third floor,” the staff report states.

The report continues, “The project will provide a working example of innovative adaptive reuse of a landmark building which is an important tool for consideration in Downtown and will be consistent in scale and mass with buildings within the immediate vicinity.”

Commissioners heard from several public speakers who favored the project. Many worked for Skydance or other local businesses in the entertainment industry. No members of the public spoke in opposition.

Ruth Lehrer, speaking on behalf of the Santa Monica Conservancy, applauded the project's “modesty,” noting that a smaller addition would be built than the municipal code allows.

“We have an adaptive reuse of a historic building that respects the preservation covenant and is a use of the building that is compatible with its historic character,” she said.

The post office was build in 1938 and closed in 2013. Skydance purchased the property in 2014. Skydance’s chief executive officer is David Ellison, son of the world’s sixth-richest man, Larry Ellison.

The Planning Commission’s approval was not the end of the line. The project must go before the Landmarks Commission for a final design review. Also, the City Council will vote on the plans for the building's interior.

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