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Santa Monica's Former Mayors Sound Off on Bergamot Transit Village

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

February 6, 2014 -- While the City Council approved the Bergamot Transit Village Tuesday night, the conversation about the mixed-use, transit-oriented development is far from over.

A group of residents has called for a referendum on the project and some have threatened legal action in order to stop Texas-based developer Hines from building the 767,000 square-foot residential and commercial project on the site of the abandoned Papermate factory.

Whether there is enough political will among residents to actually stop the project remains to be seen, but opinions about the project, which would be built walking distance from a new Expo light rail station, are as strong as they are varied.

“We failed as a community” to negotiate a better project, said former mayor Michael Feinstein. Feinstein belongs to a camp that believes the project should have had more housing.

At Tuesday's meeting, Councilmember Ted Winterer proposed a motion that would have kept the project the same size but would made 70 percent of the project housing instead of the current 55 percent.

“There should have been five votes for that motion,” said Feinstein.

But the motion failed 5-to-2 partly because, according to City staff, the change would have delayed the project for months at the expense of the developer.

And, the City risked losing the development agreement (DA). Since Hines could simply convert the current building to office space without a DA, the City would lose out on housing and the attendant $32.2 million dollars in community benefits proposed in the current DA.

“Had Ted's motion been a negotiating point earlier in the (seven-year-long planning) process,” said Feinstein, it could have been an option.

Losing the project was something that Assemblymember Richard Bloom, a former Santa Monica mayor, said the city and the region couldn't afford.

A “No” vote on the project, Bloom said, would've sent “a very chilling message to other communities.

“I think this is a model of good transit-oriented development,” he said. The office space is important, Bloom said, because both housing and jobs need to be located along the Los Angeles region's growing light rail system.

Bloom was on the Council when Hines first proposed a much larger project for the site. Before leaving the City Council for a State Assembly seat in 2012, Bloom and his colleagues negotiated with Hines to reduce the size of the project.

“I'm pleased with the result,” he said. Bloom added that the mix meets the goals adopted in 2010 as part of the city's Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), since the planning document identifies the Bergamot Area for development that is roughly 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential.

Former mayor Paul Rosenstein said that LUCE goals are part of the problem.

"I still feel the way I did when, before the LUCE was adopted, I told the Planning Commission and City Council that we needed housing in the Bergamont area, not more office space,” he said.

“It was a mistake to allow so much office space in the plan,” Rosenstein said. “Seven thousand people already work within walking distance and if there was enough housing nearby, many of them could live here and not tie up traffic by commuting.”

Former mayor and co-founder of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) Dennis Zane agreed, calling the Council's vote a “very regrettable decision.”

SMRR, under Zane's leadership, has actively protested the project. The powerful political organization pushed for the project to be 60 percent housing.

However, Zane has personally called for Hines to scrap all of the office and build a 100 percent residential project.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown made a similar motion Tuesday night but it was voted down 4-to-3.

“The council had better choices,” Zane said. “They could have solved lots of problems, including reduced local traffic burdens in this very burdened area of the city, by substituting low-traffic generating residential for high-traffic generating commercial.”

The Council will officially confirm the DA in a second vote on February 11, which will then begin the 30-day period for opponents to collect the 6,000 signatures needed to subject the project to a referendum.

“I'm really sad and disappointed that we're now going to have to go to referendum,” said Feinstein.

“There are many avenues of communication in many directions that are not open, that should be,” he said. “And at the same time, we go down the referendum path on this project, we need to be thinking very hard about why the discussions didn't happen over the last few months.”

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