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Table Mall Project or Scale It Back, Planning Commission Tells Council

By Jorge Casuso

January 7 -– The City Council should either table an ambitious plan to redevelop Santa Monica Place or hold the project to existing zoning standards, the Planning Commission recommended early Thursday morning.

The 4 to 2 vote capped a four-hour hearing that included a presentation by the developers of the plan to rebuild the struggling indoor mall and add an office building, park space and 450 residential units atop two floors of retail space.

The commission’s recommendation would put the brakes on the project -- whose three 21-story condo towers far exceed the current height limits -- until the City completes its update of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan, a process that could take at least two years.

Otherwise, under the commission’s recommendation, developers would have to dramatically scale back the project, whose 300-foot towers exceed the 56 feet allowed under current zoning.

View from Second Street and Colorado Avenue

The commission’s vote comes three weeks before the council is expected to decide whether to negotiate a development agreement with the Macerich Company, which owns the mall.

“The council should not be directing staff to negotiate a development agreement on a project when the starting point is 21 stories,” Commission Chair Barbara Brown said after the meeting.

“I don’t want to see the land use update have to be informed by a project of this magnitude that is already a fait accompli,” Brown said. “A project of this magnitude should go along with the land use element. It should not be the reverse.”

Julie Dad, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, said she opposed recommending that the council direct staff to negotiate an agreement even under the current General Plan.

The height limit under the current plan, Dad said, is “very open to interpretation by staff.”

The 56-foot limit, she said, could be increased to 84 feet under a discretionary site review, and “the grade” from which the total height would be measured has not been firmly established.

But Dad concurred with delaying any agreement until a new General Plan is in place.

“If a part of the City has already changed dramatically, why are we allowing that before deciding what to do” with the General Plan, she said after the meeting.

Before approving the recommendation, the commission shot down a motion to hold a special public hearing before the council takes up the issue January 25.

It also defeated a motion to remove the mall site from the Civic Center Specific Plan, which under council direction includes Santa Monica Place.

Although the draft plan -- which can override the General Plan -- would allow heights of up to 14 stories, the council has not yet given its final approval pending completion of environmental review.

If the council delays the proposal for the 10-acre site, Macerich officials could return to a far less ambitious plan to open up the indoor mall and extend the Third Street Promenade to Colorado Place.

Macerich’s plan to rebuild the Frank Gehry-designed mall was unveiled in November, one and a half years after the City Council and members of the Promenade Uses Task Force and Civic Center Working Group gave the thumbs up to a general blueprint for the site.

The conceptual blueprint would allow as many as 450 housing units and 100,000 feet of office space to be added to the existing retail space, which would be slightly expanded.

While Macerich’s proposal abides by the guidelines, its three towers exceed the City’s current height limits, matching Santa Monica’s tallest structure, the GTE building at Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

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