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The Sky's the Limit

By Frank Gruber

Everyone has his or her own "real" Santa Monica; last week I encountered mine three times.

Once, Wednesday at the groundbreaking for the Madison Theater, where a few hundred people celebrated a little piece of our civic future (notwithstanding that no one mentioned our City nor, in the form of official guests, did it make an appearance).

The second encounter occurred Thursday evening in Barnum Hall, at the Samohi Winter band concert, when I among several hundred others celebrated a different kind of future: teenagers in tuxedos and black dresses and suits making music.

I ran into the real Santa Monica the third time at Saturday's workshop on the land use and circulation element updates, where about 150 Santa Monicans, most of whom I had never seen before at a public meeting, convened and envisioned a relatively positive view of Santa Monica's future. More on the LUCE process in the future.

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"5 SKYSCRAPERS! in downtown Santa Monica; 3-25 story high condos towers plus 20 office towers at Santa Monica Place. They want to take our hometown and turn it into their bag of money -- a developer's mecca where the sky's the limit." -- from a flyer "paid for by Concerned Citizens of Santa Monica" I found taped to my garage Friday

Tuesday evening is the big night when Macerich will present its plans to remake Santa Monica Place to the City Council, and the council will decide whether there is enough promise in the plans to warrant negotiating a development agreement to allow the project to proceed.

Before I write more about Santa Monica Place, I need to correct two mistakes in last week's column, both of which were the result of my confused memory of what I have seen and read about the project.

The first mistake was to say that of the 450 units of housing Macerich proposes to build, 150 would be dedicated-affordable. The correct statistic is that 150 units will be rental apartments, and that an unspecified number of those will be dedicated-affordable; "unspecified" because Macerich has left that number open for negotiation.

Although I confused rental with dedicated-affordable, I will stick to my point, which is that 450 units of housing in this location will be a good thing. It will be up to the City to negotiate not only for affordable units (hopefully the 30 percent Prop. R requires for the city as a whole) or in-lieu fees, but also for configurations of the other units that will suit Santa Monica's population now and in the future.

For instance, perhaps even the condominiums can be made attractive to empty-nester Santa Monicans who would sell their family-friendly (and greatly appreciated) houses in R-1 neighborhoods and move downtown.

The other mistake I made was to misinterpret how Macerich proposed to pay for the underground parking. Macerich has not suggested that the City's Redevelopment Agency should pay to build the parking for new residential and office development, only that the Agency should build replacement parking for the approximately 2,000 parking spaces in the existing Agency-owned structures that serve the retail development.

So when I said that it would be wrong to use tax increment funding to build parking spaces for condominiums, I wasn't wrong that it would be wrong, but I was wrong that it was a possibility in this project.

The bigger issue is still there, however; whether the City will receive enough public benefits (or parking fees or rent) to justify spending the money it will take to replace the existing parking.

Not coincidentally, the public benefits of the project were Subject A of a discussion that took place Friday morning at the Westside Urban Forum. On the dais were Mayor Pam O'Connor, Bayside District Executive Director Kathleen Rawson, developer Randy Brant from Macerich, and urban designer Doug Suisman (known locally for, among other projects, the graphic identity for the Metro Rapid bus system).

Mayor O'Connor and Ms. Rawson recounted the history of the site, Mr. Brant presented the project in much the same way he said he would present it to the council Tuesday, and Mr. Suisman highlighted in brief what he thinks the crucial issues are for the public.

Without repeating everything Mr. Suisman said (if the council votes to proceed with a development agreement there will be ample time in the future to review all the issues), I found one observation he made particularly insightful. This was his analysis of why the original plan for three 300-foot towers struck such a raw nerve. After all, he said, there are seaside cities people love, such as Vancouver, that are known for their tall residential towers.

Mr. Suisman suggested that the problem with the height of Macerich's towers (which, by the way, Mr. Brant from Macerich took pains to indicate were optional) was not so much their height, but what would be in them: luxury condominiums. While Santa Monica has its share of ritzy neighborhoods, and there was once a "Gold Coast" below Palisades Park, its abiding image over the years has been of an egalitarian, middle and working class town.

I.e., Santa Monicans do not want to have their skyline defined -- or created -- by conspicuous consumption.

Mr. Suisman makes a good point. There are some anti-growth Santa Monicans who would be against, and will be against, any new development at Santa Monica Place. But I imagine that if, in an earlier day, Donald Douglas had chosen to build three slender 300-foot towers for the headquarters of Douglas Aviation, they would today be among the most beloved buildings in the city. (If you think I'm wrong, think about the Pier; how hard would it be to build it today? Imagine the traffic impacts the EIR would identify.)

So what will happen Tuesday night? I don't know, but everyone interested should read the staff report. You will learn, notwithstanding the pronouncements of the Planning Commission, or the SMRR Steering Committee, or the Democratic Club, or "Concerned Citizens of Santa Monica (whoever they may be), that plans for the redevelopment have proceeded methodically over the past few years, and that in only one respect -- the proposed height of the towers -- does the plan deviate from the current land use element of the general plan. Indeed, the floor-area ratio (FAR) of the proposal plan is substantially less than the allowable FAR of 3.5.

Unusual in a city where the decision-makers typically find themselves responding to matters that have made their way to them through a hierarchy of staff and board or commission review, the Santa Monicans who have probably the longest perspective and best understanding of the Santa Monica Place re-do are the members of the City Council themselves. With the exception of newcomer Bobby Shriver, they have been involved intimately for years in decisions about the Civic Center area, including Santa Monica Place.

Intriguingly, for anyone trying to handicap the vote Tuesday night, the members of the council who most often oppose development -- Ken Genser, Richard Bloom and Kevin McKeown -- have shown the most interest in creating the link between the Promenade and the Civic Center. (Michael Feinstein was perhaps the most enthusiastic, but he's no longer on the Council.)

Genser, Bloom, and McKeown were on the Civic Center Working Group, and they know that housing was removed from the south side of the freeway, with the intention of making it up on the other side. But they will be under pressure from their anti-growth constituents to reverse course.

Particularly because of the height of the originally proposed towers, all the council members will be under pressure to oppose the project. As I have said, I hope no one loses sight of the forest for the high rises. What we're talking about is replacing a bad development, including two massive parking structures, with a much better development that would include (at least) one new street, much improved pedestrian ambiance and 450 units of downtown housing.

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