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Santa Monica Embarks on Once-in-a-Lifetime Development Downtown  

 

By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

April 13, 2012 -- The Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to seek a developer for three City-owned acres that is the largest available piece of land in the bustling Downtown.

Council members encouraged potential developers to think creatively about the 127,000-square foot parcel, between Fourth and Fifth streets along Arizona Avenue, which is currently home to two banks, several retail stores and a parking lot that doubles as a skating rink for ICE at Santa Monica each holiday season.

"I want to make sure that we're opening up to really creative, different thinking," said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis. The development should be "maybe different than anyone else has ever seen."

The comments echo the excitement expressed in a letter Downtown officials sent the council last month. The site, officials wrote, "offers an amazing opportunity in Downtown that we have not had for generations, and is unlikely to be duplicated in our lifetime."

The resulting project, City staff said, should be a "model of sustainable development" that would "help animate (the area) with pedestrian-oriented ground floor urban design." The project also should include "a wide range of public benefits including open space options and public parking," staff wrote in its report to the council.

There has been no lack of input from Santa Monica residents who have attended three community meetings to envision the future of the unique parcel, City officials said.

During past meetings, residents have indicated that the site should be a “strong anchor” and have plenty of open space with easy mobility, said Sarah LeJeune, a principal planner for the City. Many residents also felt that it should be a destination for nightlife.

Based on the public input so far, residents want to see a development with an animated ground floor, along with mixed-use buildings that include residential, retail and possibly offices. They also have asked for ample public space, as well as plentiful public parking.

“The main issue that we've heard is (that residents want) a flexible gathering space,” said LeJeune, adding that many residents have voiced their hope that there will be plenty of room for continuing ICE at Santa Monica's five-year tradition once the site has been developed.

“We are hopeful that this will be an iconic development,” said Miriam Mack, the City's manager of Economic Development.

While the plan is still in its infancy, Downtown and City officials believe the parcel could well become a second heart of Downtown, spreading the outdoor market culture of the Promenade and creating an even larger space for visitors and residents alike to enjoy the beachside city's many offerings.

At a City Council meeting last May, staff unveiled preliminary scenarios of how the site could be laid out and asked residents to weigh in on the ideas, although LeJeune emphasized that the sketches were not, by any means, concrete plans.

One scenario kept buildings in the lot relatively low, resulting in less open space (approximately 37,000 of the 127,000 square feet).

Another scenario featured gradated building heights – with lower buildings along the edge of the lot and the tallest buildings rising as high as 110 feet toward the center of the property to take advantage of the sweeping views. This layout would yield 44,000 square feet of open space.

On March 27, City staff was scheduled to return to the council with guiding principles and major themes for the site. “The council will not be making specific demands” regarding planning and design, Mack said.

Instead, staff will seek the council's input in order to codify a vision for the parcel and allow City staff to move forward and find “a development team that can fulfill that vision.”

“We don't want to be overly descriptive,” Mack said, adding that it is best when a developer is presented a clear vision and allowed the freedom to work out the specifics.

As always, parking promises to be an issue. 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.

When ideas were discussed at the council meeting on May 10 of last year, Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), asked the council members 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 views the site as an excellent opportunity to continue Downtown Santa Monica's “park once” strategy, which encourages visitors to leave their vehicles in one location and walk from place to place while they are Downtown.

The development of the land along Arizona is only one of the half dozen major projects that promise to transform Downtown Santa Monica over the next few years. Other projects include the arrival of the Expo Light Rail line at Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue, the construction of the Colorado Esplanade, the building of a new hotel at 710 Wilshire Boulevard and the redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar.

The City hopes to have a short list of potential developers for the Arizona site by early summer, Mack said.

Once a developer is chosen, "the development would be further refined, entitlements would be considered, and business terms would be negotiated," staff wrote in its report to the council Tuesday.

The council, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission will get a chance to begin looking at more concrete designs near the end of the year.

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report

 


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