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City Council Talks About 4th and Arizona Site  

By Gene Williams
Lookout Staff

May 12, 2011 -- Plans for the future of Downtown Santa Monica took a small step forward Tuesday night, as the City Council discussed ideas to develop 127,000 square feet of City-owned land at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue.

The subject was introduced by Planning Director Eileen Fogarty, who stressed the prime location of the property.

“This is a three-acre contiguous site in the heart of our Downtown. What an opportunity!” Fogarty told the council. “So it’s very important, as we look together at this site, that we do it right.”

Planning for the site is still in its earliest stages. Two preliminary community meetings to envision possible uses took place in March, and construction could easily be several years or more away.

However, John Kaliski, a design consultant to the City, presented to the council what he called “very preliminary thoughts” of what the project might look like.

Based on what planning staff heard at the March meetings, Kaliski’s slide showed five large buildings around three sides of an outdoor gathering space facing Arizona Avenue.

The outdoor space could be adapted to seasonal uses, such as Downtown’s annual winter ice-skating rink.

The buildings would range in height from 70 feet to 86 feet with shops, restaurants and meeting space on an “activated ground level,” over which there would be offices, housing and a small hotel, Kaliski said.

Kaliski also noted that the site will need to include parking. “A lot of people [at the design workshops] wanted that to be underground,” Kaliski said.

Putting public parking at the site is a priority for Downtown businesses, as nearby Structure 3 is slated to go down in a few years to make way for a new AMC movie theater.

The Fourth and Arizona site has long been eyed as the only logical place to replace the 393 spaces that will be lost.

Some public officials would like to take that idea a step farther.

During public comment, Kathleen Rawson, executive director of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., asked to council to consider Downtown parking as an entire system when planning for the site.

“We only have one opportunity to build a hole here, and if we do it right the first time, it helps secure infrastructure for the future,” Rawson said.

Rawson suggested expanding the Downtown Parking District – which presently ends at Fourth Street – eastward to include Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, where a number of small surface parking lots could be redeveloped.

Rawson also pointed out that – in addition to losing Structure 3 – Parking Structure 1 not far away on Fourth Street is in need of a retrofit. This may be an opportunity “to do something different” with the aging facility, Rawson said.

Later, Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis, who until recently served as council liaison to Downtown Inc., amplified Rawson’s comment.

“My feeling is that this is an opportunity to build as much parking as we economically can,” Davis said.

“I think the opportunity to take down Structure 1 would be wonderful,” she said, adding “it’s ugly” and “it’s in a very bad spot.”

The City’s above-ground structures serve their purpose, but they also act as visual and physical barriers, Davis explained.

Davis said she knows that building parking below ground is expensive, but she wanted staff to look into it.

Commenting on other possible design elements, Davis said she would like to see retail and restaurant space included in upper levels of the buildings, not just on the ground floors.

Davis also said she would prefer that buildings not include too much office space, unless the economics of developing the property made it necessary.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown agreed that offices are probably not the best use for the site, adding that they do little to enliven an area and go totally dead at night.

Councilmember Terry O’Day also agreed with much of what Davis said.

“My view is that we should have no above ground parking whatsoever,” O’Day said.

In addition, O’Day agreed that shops and restaurants should not be limited to the ground floor,

O’Day then expanded the idea, suggesting that the indoor-outdoor feel typical of Downtown’s ground floor businesses could also be extended to upper levels, “potentially all the way to the rooftop.”

But while most discussion focused on possible designs and uses, Councilmember Bobby Shriver thought the City was going about things the wrong way.

The City seemed to be playing the role of developer instead of seeking the expertise of a professional, Shriver said.

“I know we all have an anti-developer kind of feeling here,” Shriver said. “But the truth is that these [developers] are the creative people who created most of the places” that were shown as examples in staff’s powerpoint slide presentation.

“Why are we a better developer than a developer would be?” asked Shriver.

Fogarty replied that the City was not acting as developer, but simply trying to establish guidelines based on community visions and expectations.

But Shriver persisted in his argument.

City processes have a tendency to build “momentum,” Shriver said. It would be wise to bring in a developer sooner than later, before the City becomes tied to a vision that may not be economically feasible or the best solution, he said.

Mckeown and Mayor Richard Bloom disagreed.

McKeown said that he would rather use community expectations than market forces as a starting point for planning for a publicly-owned site.

However, McKeown added, “economic reality” will eventually come into the picture and could involve some trade-offs.

For example, to get public benefits, such as more open space, “might mean more height and massing than we would otherwise be comfortable with,” McKeown said.

Bloom also didn’t think the City was overstepping its abilities.

“I’m clear that our role here is much more akin to being the owner” than the developer, Bloom said. “This is public space and it belongs to the people of Santa Monica.”

The people tell the developer what they want and the developer works within that framework, Bloom said.

“I think we’re on the right track here,” Bloom said.

In June, the Planning Commission and Downtown Santa Monica Inc. will host Alternatives Workshops, in which participants from the community will be invited to weigh in on options for the Fourth Street and Arizona Avenue site.

Planning staff will gather public comments at those meetings and refine it into developer solicitation objectives for council approval.

Once the council approves the ideas, solicitation for a development partner will begin.


“My feeling is that this is an opportunity to build as much parking as we economically can,” Gleam Davis

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