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Major Projects Move Ahead in Downtown Santa Monica  


By Jorge Casuso

April 18, 2012 -- From reviewing preliminary designs to moving projects through the planning pipeline to holding a groundbreaking ceremony, Santa Monica City officials have been busy this year with projects that will change the face of Downtown.

On Tuesday, the City Council will take up an ambitious plan to redevelop the renowned Fairmont Miramar Hotel facing Palisades Park in a meeting that promises to be one of the best attended and liveliest in years.

If the council votes to move ahead with a Development Agreement (DA), it would mark the fourth major hotel project the council greenlights this year. Last month, the council voted to proceed with a DA for a new hotel that promises to revitalize the northeastern edge of the district.

And earlier this month, the council voted to move forward with DAs for two mid-priced hotels at Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue, across from the Expo Light Rail line, which is scheduled to arrives in 2015.

Earlier this year, the council moved forward with a preliminary design for an esplanade along Colorado Avenue that will serve as a gateway to Downtown and greet passengers exiting from the rail station.

A mile south of the district, City officials and developers broke ground on a major mixed-use residential complex that promises to bring new visitors from the Civic Center to the center of the city.

Following are summaries of some of the major projects Downtown:

Fairmont Miramar Redevelopment
A proposal to "comprehensively redevelop" the Fairmont Miramar Hotel will meet its biggest test Tuesday night, when the City Council votes on whether to negotiate a Development Agreement.

Proposed public space at Fairmont Miramar. Rendering courtesy Fairmont Miramar.

The project scaled its first major hurdle in February when the Planning Commission voted 5 to 2 to recommend that the council move forward, but with some conditions.

The vote February 22 capped a four-hour discussion of the design for the proposed project, which would add as many as 120 condominiums on the upper floors of three new buildings replacing the two main buildings currently on the site.

Planning Commissioners shared some major concerns with the proposed redevelopment, including the alignment of the project, the design and the community benefits package. But the commission gave its approval after being divided about how best to word the recommendation to the council.

Commissioner Jim Ries, who made the successful motion, said he was concerned the proposed alignment would create a wall along Second Street, a complaint that many residents of the neighborhood voiced at a lengthy February 8 Planning Commission hearing.

In addition to the condominiums, the proposed plan for the site -- bounded by Wilshire Boulevard, California Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Second Street -- would replace the two-story administration building on Second Street with an 11-story building and a 30-foot tall by 95-foot wide open-air arrival court.

The 10-story Ocean Tower toward the center of the property would be demolished and replaced with a 12-story tower, and an entirely new 10-story building would be built along California Avenue. The six-story 1920s Palisades Building and iconic late-nineteenth century Moreton Bay Fig Tree would remain.

The plan, which reduces the number of hotel rooms from 296 to 265, includes 484 subterranean parking spaces and would add retail space along Wilshire.

Community benefits negotiated as part of the development agreement could include as many as 40 affordable housing units, one acre of public open space proposed for the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue and a living wage provision for hotel workers, according to staff.

The debate over the redesign has been a divisive one, bringing out supporters and detractors alike.

A group called Santa Monicans Against the Miramar Expansion has dubbed the project "Miramarmageddon," arguing that the current plans would ruin the neighborhood and "pave the way for other developers to blow through height limits in the future."

A rival group, Friends of the Miramar, has turned up at public meetings to speak in support of the project, as have representatives of Unite Here Local 11, the hospitality workers' union.

The groups will face off at a City Council meeting Tuesday night in the council chambers at City Hall.

710 Wilshire Boulevard
A major new hotel expected to revitalize the northeast corner of Downtown received the approval of the City Council last month, but by the time the final vote was cast, the focus had shifted from the hotel's design to its workers' wages.

Proposed Hotel at 710 Wilshire. Rendering courtesy City of Santa Monica.

At its meeting March 20, the council approved the development agreement with wages set at $12.50 an hour or $11.25 with health benefits. The amount was higher than the $11.89 an hour suggested in the development agreement, but lower than the $15 rejected by the council before whittling down the amount.

Some council members feared requiring too high a wage could sink a project City and Downtown officials hope will revitalize a moribund corner of Downtown. Mayor Richard Bloom noted the project is expected to create more than 200 jobs and $3 million in annual tax revenues for the City.

“I think this project is extremely important to our city,” Bloom said. “My fear is that by supporting the higher rate... it will be the death knell for this project.”

In addition to the living wage, the DA calls for other community benefits, including an internship program for low-income students, a local hiring provision and a payment of $244,000 to the City for improvements to Santa Monica's transportation infrastructure.

Downtown officials believe the project will be a boon to the area, creating pedestrian activity at the street level, which can be accessed easily by passers-by.

“It's an important anchor location,” said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.  “It's the entrance to Downtown at Wilshire. It's a key location that could really use some help.”

Said Planning Commissioner Jason Parry, “This project is fundamentally about this landmark and breathing new life into one of the best buildings we have in the city.”

Two More Hotels
On April 10, the Courtyard by Marriott and a Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton were given a green light by the council to initiate DAs. The hotels would bring a total of almost 270 rooms across the street from the future site of the Expo Light Rail terminal.

“Having mid-range hotels so close to the Expo I think is an excellent fit,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis, adding that “there's not a lot of building of mid-range hotels” in downtown Los Angeles.

Though the DAs for the two proposed hotels have yet to be drafted, one community benefit that the council clearly wants is a living wage provision similar to the one required for a proposed 285-room Downtown hotel at 710 Wilshire Boulevard approved by the council in March.

One of the hotels, the Marriott project, located on the northwest corner of Fifth and Colorado, would replace Midas and Royalty Autobody, two local businesses that arguably have some historical significance to the Downtown area.

The City's Landmarks Commission is set to consider a historical designation for the building, which was used by inventor Waldo Waterman between 1935 and 1938 to develop the flying car.

If approved, the two hotels would be two block east of the new 164-room Shore Hotel that opened its doors last September at the site of the old Pacific Sands and Travelodge hotels on Ocean Avenue. The new hotel also boasts retail space.

Colorado Esplanade
The Expo Light Rail is on track to arrive in Downtown Santa Monica on schedule in 2015, and when it does, as many as 400 passengers during peak hours will get on and off the train every five minutes at the station on Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue.

Rendering of proposed Colorado Esplanade. Rendering courtesy City of Santa Monica.

On February 14, City Council reviewed the latest design for the proposed Colorado Esplanade that would accommodate the growth in pedestrian traffic at the end of the line. The design by Peter Walker Partners turns the avenue into a one-way street westbound from Fifth Street to Ocean Avenue and includes a sidewalk on the south side of the street that would, at its narrowest points, be 40 feet wide.

While reaction to the design was generally positive, several council members worried that the proposed one-way configuration would impact the traffic flow on surrounding streets.  "I don't want to send you off thinking... that we're okay with going this direction without understanding how circulation is going to work in the Downtown area," said Mayor Richard Bloom.

Traffic consultants assured the council that tests show the design would work by shifting eastbound traffic to Broadway and to Olympic Boulevard, a major thoroughfare slated to be extended to Ocean Avenue. Addressing another significant concern, City staff assured the council that there would continue to be bus service down Colorado.

The design team's renderings were full of elements directing pedestrians leaving the train platform toward Downtown and the Pier, including tree-lined streets that draw the eye to the iconic Santa Monica Pier sign.

In response to input gathered at various community meetings, renderings of the plan included possible scenarios for unique lighting fixtures and public art displays.

The Esplanade designs are still preliminary and many of the elements have yet to be decided. However, the design team is hoping to begin the design stage of the project later this year.

Peter Walker, founder of PWP, told the council that the design would ultimately create a space with "a character, a dignity and a festivity about it."

The Village
It may lie outside the Downtown district, but The Village, a $350-million, 3.7-acre complex that got underway at the Civic Center with a ceremonial ground breaking last month, promises to have a lasting impact on the heart of the city.

Proposed complex "The Village". Rendering courtesy City of Santa Monica.

The February 16 ground breaking was a culmination of six years of negotiations between Related California -- the developer -- and the City. The project scaled its final hurdle last October when City Council narrowly approved an amendment that will allow Related the option of extending their condo leases from 99 years to 149 years.

One of Santa Monica's largest mixed-use housing complexes and a centerpiece in the redevelopment of the Civic Center, The Village will include three residential buildings taller than 75 feet with 158 condominiums, 160 affordable housing units and ten live/work residences for artists.

The project -- which sits on City-owned land adjacent to the Rand Corporation headquarters and fronting Ocean Avenue -- also will include on-site open space, a public plaza, parking, shops and restaurants.

The Village is part of a major transformation of the area that includes the renovation of the Civic Auditorium, the building of the Palisades Garden Walk and Town Center and the extension of Olympic Boulevard.

"This is going to be an amazing place," said Mayor Richard Bloom. "We look forward to the vitality that its design, businesses and residents will bring to Downtown Santa Monica.”

The complex is divided into three sites with buildings that range from four to ten stories in height and provide plenty of open spaces meant to "activate the street," according to Bill Witte, president of Related California.

Bloom celebrated what he called the unique nature of the Village. "In this place, we will soon see a pioneering mix of market rate condominiums, affordable rental units, live-work units, and ground floor commercial space on a long-term ground lease," he said.


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