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Planning Commission Seems Set Against Mall Redevelopment Plan

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 4 -- Early on in the public process and with no formal presentation by developers, Planning Commissioners are lining up against an ambitious project to redevelop Santa Monica Place and add three 21-story towers.

On Wednesday, the commission is expected to recommend that the City Council reject outright the Macerich Company proposal to redevelop its struggling indoor mall or wait more than two years for the City to update its general plan before taking up the project, which far exceeds the current zoning heights.

The recommendation would be weighed by the council later this month, when it is scheduled to get its first formal glimpse of the project, which would extend the Third Street Promenade an extra block and add an office building, park space and 450 residential units atop two floors of retail space.

"I would not be disappointed if the City Council decides to stop the development agreement here and now," said Commissioner Julie Lopez-Dad, who remains one of the few commissioners not to have seen one of several informal presentations by the developers.

"Only recently have developers reached out to planning commissioners, inviting us to view the project in private," Lopez-Dad said. "I refused because it is important to view the project in the context of an open, public meeting, and not behind closed doors."

Suzanne Frick, who heads the City's Planning Department, said Macerich officials have asked to make a presentation before the commission Wednesday night.

Whether or not to view the presentation, she said, is "a decision the commission will have to make."

Macerich officials said they look forward to presenting the plan to the full commission before it votes on a recommendation Wednesday night.

"It's important to Macerich to have the opportunity to present our project in more detail than has been presented in the press," said Randy Brant, Senior Vice President for Development and Leasing for Macerich, who will attend the meeting with the project's architect.

How the project was brought before the City has been a source of tension, many of the commissioners said.

They believe developers and some City staff members are trying to sidestep what can be a lengthy public review by City boards and commissions and go directly to the City Council, which is expected to decide on January 25 whether to enter into a development agreement or wait for the new General Plan.

Several commissioners are backing a draft recommendation drawn up December 1, the first time the item was discussed by the commission at the request of two of its members.

"The present proposal is grossly overscaled," states the draft recommendation. "Any acceptable proposal, even if under a development agreement, must be consistent with the General Plan."

Commissioner Terry O'Day feels his colleagues have made up their minds prematurely. The public, he said, will have plenty of time to review the project during a lengthy process that would follow the council's initial decision.

"I would say (the commission members) view it as an end around," said O'Day, referring to staff's decision to present the plan to the City Council first.

The issue first appeared on the council agenda as a discussion item on December 14, one month after The Lookout first broke the story, but was dropped from the agenda due to time constraints.

Planning officials said they hoped the council would provide direction on how to proceed with the project as staff simultaneously works to update the City's General Plan and embarks on the public process for the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Civic Center Specific Plan, which includes the project site.

"What is driving this is timing," Frick said. "We can't begin the public process until we get council direction."

Last month, the council discussed a proposed housing development in the Civic Center, but failed to indicate how tall a building could rise, which may have provided a valuable hint at the feasibility of the Santa Monica Place proposal.

How it impacts the rezoning is precisely why most commission members are hesitant to approve Macerich's project, whose 21-story towers would match Santa Monica's tallest structure, the GTE building at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

"There is nothing in the land use element now to support this kind of project in the area it is proposed," said Commissioner Darrell Clarke. "Such a large project going forward without more review and very little public input, just as we are about to begin the land use element update is not how it should be done."

Moving forward with such the project before addressing general zoning issues, could set a precedent for larger, denser projects, commissioners said.

"This project would directly influence the zoning update," said Lopez-Dad, who is president of the Santa Monica Democratic Club.

On Wednesday, the commission also expected to consider a recommendation from the Democratic Club to place a moratorium on projects larger than 50,000 square feet, pending the completion of the Land Use and Circulation Element process.

In a letter to the commission the Democratic Club wrote: "To let huge developments determine the future of the City before the City has determined its vision, its future and its wishes undermines the entire process on which we have embarked in re-considering the General Plan."

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report
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