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Santa Monica's Miramar Hotel Redevelopment Gets Initial Go-ahead  


By Jorge Casuso

April 25, 2012 -- A public park with an iconic sculpture, affordable housing for low income families and, above all, protection for union workers were among the "community benefits" that should be included in negotiations with the Fairmont Miramar the Santa Monica City Council green-lighted early Wednesday.

The council also asked staff and hotel owner MSD Capital L.P to explore options other than the four proposed for a "comprehensive redevelopment" that would add as many as 120 condominiums in three new buildings replacing the two main buildings currently on the site.

"This is a location that deserves not just a good project but a stupendous project… worthy of Santa Monica," said Mayor Pro tem Glean Davis. "The treatment of workers is of paramount importance," she added, echoing the sentiments of other council members.

But Council member Kevin McKeown remained unconvinced that the redevelopment needs to be as ambitious as the one proposed or that the number of condominiums that will result are necessary to bankroll the project.

The developer, said McKeown, who cast the only dissenting vote, is “trying to put ten pounds of stuff into a five pound bag.”

The 6-1 vote to negotiate a Development Agreement (DA) came after some 80 speakers testified at the hearing, while a spill-over crowd watched on television sets in the lobby after the doors to the packed council chambers were closed one and a half hours before the meeting.

As expected, proponents -- who wore blue Friends of the Miramar (FOM) stickers -- urged the council to move ahead with a project they said would provide a northern gateway to Downtown, as well as much-needed tax revenues during tough economic times.

“That is a very dead block,” said former City manager Susan McCarthy, one of numerous civic leaders, including three former mayors, who testified in support of the project. “The north end of the Promenade isn't very active at this point."

McCarthy praised the developer for listening to community comments and looking "at things in new ways." The project, she said, would have a “multiplier effect because all businesses in the area will benefit.”

Opponents -- who wore red Save Santa Monica Coalition stickers resembling a stop sign -- countered that the 550,000-square-foot project would bring gridlock to the area, destroy ocean views and wreck the character of the neighborhood.

The project "is too massive, and the architecture is pedestrian," said Robert Gurfield, who owns a condominium behind the proposed project and is a founder and co-chair of the coalition.

Gurfield showed a short slide presentation that included a pig in lipstick followed by stunning new hotel designs from around the world.

Alan Epstein, the lead negotiator for MSD Capital, said the renderings presented to the council are preliminary and that the developer "has not begun design yet," noting that construction would likely not begin for five years.

Echoing the sentiments of both proponents and opponents, council members urged the developer to produce a world-class design that features the qualities of light and air worthy of a beach community. (The designs in the renderings appear traditional and boxy.)

The developer should not dismiss the possibility of building a tall slender tower taller than the 12 stories proposed in the four options presented at the meeting, Davis said.

Former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber urged developers to explore different configurations, saying that the 2.9 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) with 50 percent coverage of the square-block site could result in a design worthy of Paris or Barcelona, with courtyards amidst the buildings.

"Resist the four options," Gruber told the council.

Two key points in the DA negotiations will likely be the number of condominium units and the number of affordable housing units on the site.

Community Corporation, the City's largest affordable housing provider, submitted a proposal that calls for 30 two and three-bedroom units that can accommodate low-income families. The developer has said the number could range anywhere from ten to 40 units, which would be built across Second Street behind the hotel.

Epstein told the council that the number of condominium units will be determined by the market for luxury units five years from now, but he emphasized that the condominiums, which would occupy the upper floors and provide full service -- are a key component if the development is to pencil out.

"We need the residential units to help us pay for the hotel," Epstein said.

The council praised Epstein for sharing profit projections with the council, something developers seldom, if ever, do. He said MSD capital had paid $204 million when it bought the hotel six years ago and has since then pumped in another $8 million to $10 million.

The 84-year-old Miramar, he said, "is in need of a major reinvigoration," adding that "the luxury hotel market is brutally competitive."

The project $255 million project would more than double the size of the existing rooms, which are much too small for today's market, from 240 square feet to 600 square feet, Epstein said.

“Our preliminary traffic study suggests that the total traffic generated will be the same as today,” Epstein said.

The project also would boost the number of parking spaces from 167 to 484, with 125 of the spaces dedicated for workers, many of whom now park on the street.   

Staff writer Jason Islas contributed to this report.


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