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Planning Commission Urges Council to Fast-Track Miramar Redevelopment

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By Jorge Casuso

September 14, 2020 -- The Planning Commission voted 6 to 1 last week to support the proposed redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and urged the City Council to fast-track one of the most ambitious projects in Santa Monica history.

The project -- which has been radically altered three times during its decade-long journey through the planning process -- is expected to provide a much-needed boost to a local economy devastated by the coronavirus shutdown.

Concerns about the size of the approximately 502,157-square-foot projet facing historic Palisades Park were trumped by the need to bring jobs and revenues to Santa Monica's crippled economy, Commissioners said on Wednesday.

Miramar Hotel redevelopment rendering
Caption: Rendering of new Miramar Hotel design by Pelli Clarke Pelli (Courtesy MSD Capital)

In recommending that the Council quickly approve the 130-foot tall development on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, the Commissioners touted the local jobs it would create and the 42-unit affordable apartment building it would add across Second Street.

"I think there is an element where this project is too big and too bulky and very undifferentiated," said Richard McKinnon, a slow-growth advocate who drove the discussion during his final meeting.

"In the end, I have to balance that," McKinnon said, calling the decision the hardest he has made in his nine years on the dais. "There is a moment when you have to put aside what's really important to you and do what's important to the community."

The project "gives the community a chance to move forward," McKinnon said Wednesday, capping more than 10 hours of testimony and discussion over two full meetings this month.

Several Commissioners applauded the arduous process that resulted in the final design by world-renown architect Cesar Pelli and noted that it met the development standards for the site ("New Miramar Hotel Design Embraces Past, Present and Future of Santa Monica," April 12, 2018).

Commissioners also touted the project's benefits to the local economy, which include generating thousands of new construction jobs and more than 100 new permanent jobs, with local hiring priorities for both.

This was a major selling point for slow-growth advocates like McKinnon and Commissioner Nina Fresco.

Fresco, a former Landmarks Commissioner, requested that the 100-room seven-story historic Palisades building be restored as closely as possible to its original style -- from the tile roof to the windows, colors and signage.

But she worried the proposed project -- which takes up a highly visible block at the northern edge of Downtown -- "conflicts with the natural grandeur" of the Palisades bluffs and scenic Santa Monica Bay.

"We have really given up a really beautiful part of our city," Fresco said. "But I accept where we are. I vote for it in order to move our city through our current crisis."

McKinnon agreed. The economic impact of the COVID-19 emergency, he said, "is not as bad yet as it's going to be. Jobs have been lost, businesses are going under.

"This says to people, 'It's an investment. There are jobs, There is a future,'" McKinnon said. "We need it to begin."

McKinnon's suggestion that a strict timeline for the project be set was tempered by Commissioners who work in the development business.

Commissioner Jim Ries said he crafts construction schedules for a living and has seen "zero" that have met the timeline.

"There's always hurdles in the process we don't anticipate," Reis said. "I just don't think we can hold their feet to the fire that much."

In a City known for its onerous planning process and bureaucratic red tape, the commissioners' insistence on fast-tracking the project was unusual, if not unprecedented, for a market-rate development.

In the end, the Commissioners and staff agreed the developer's proposed timeline was realistic -- with construction to begin as early as 2023 and completed by 2026.

The Commission urged the Council to take no more than several months to approve the project -- which also requires hearings before the City's Landmarks Commission and Architectural Review Board (ARB), as well as the California Coastal Commission.

It also requires the developer to finish construction drawings and pull the needed permits, which can take two years.

"I would like to see this thing finished in six-and-a-half to seven years," said Commissioner Mario-Fonda Bonardi, a slow-growth Council candidate who cast the lone dissenting vote.

Dustin Peterson, vice-president of The Athens Group, which is leading the redevelopment, said the Miramar is eager to move forward with the project, which he says has had overwhelming community support.

The project, Peterson said, " reflects the hundreds of meetings with thousands of stakeholders we have held over the past 10 years and the policy guidance set forth in the LUCE (Land Use and Circulation Element) and the Downtown Community Plan.

“We’re very proud of the project, and we look forward to the upcoming discussion with City Council,” he said.

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