After hearing from staff and over a dozen residents and an extended discussion, the Santa Monica City Council took the City staff’s recommendation and approved the Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP) that has been in the works since the early 1990s by a vote of four to three last Tuesday.
The Council also upheld an appeal of the Planning Commission’s May 18 decision not to approve the Plan or certify its Environmental Impact Report by the Commission’s Vice-Chair Darrell Clarke. Only four Commissioners were present at the meeting, four votes were required for approval, and Commissioner Julie Lopez-Dad opposed both certification of the EIR and approval of plan on the grounds that the traffic impacts cited in the EIR data were understated and the proposed extension of Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue would exacerbate existing traffic problems.
The City adopted the original CCSP in 1993 in order to accommodate the RAND Corporation’s plans to build the largest commercial development in the city’s history. RAND subsequently changed its plans and sold 11.3 acres of its Main Street parcel to the City for $53 million, at which time the City formed a Civic Center Working Group and radically revised the Plan. The revised draft Civic Center Specific Plan was “conceptually” approved in 2002 by the Council.
The revised 2002 CCSP includes three small parks, a “town square,” the reconfiguration of streets in the Civic Center, and calls for the demolition of the old RAND buildings and the back portion of City Hall, the enlargement of the Civic Auditorium, construction of a 325-unit housing and retail complex, a new City Services building, a second bridge across the 10 Freeway from downtown Santa Monica, a playing field, a child care center and a parking structure that is now under construction.
Since the 2002 revision, additional street reconfigurations have been made. They include the realignment of Second Street to accommodate a Moreton Bay Fig Tree, a stronger bike connection to the signalized intersection at Fourth Street and Civic Center Drive that serves the Santa Monica High School pedestrian/bicycle entrance and modification of the Olympic View Corridor.
In his appeal, Clarke urged the Council to approve the plan by stating, “this is a good compromised plan. As in any major work like this, it involves many competing interests.” He then praised the street improvements and the height limits recommended by the Civic Center Working Group of which he was a member, and went on to say that it was “time to make the decisions and move on…this was the time to rethink it one more time and I think we’ve done that.”
Though it approved the Plan, the Council agreed with the Civic Center Working Group, the Planning Commission and a number of speakers that the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place should be separated from the CCSP, as the City staff and Macerich, owner of Santa Monica Place, have not yet completed their plans for the redevelopment of the property.
Prior to the Council’s approval of the plan, it heard from over a dozen speakers. A major concern of some of them was the City’s proposed demolition of RAND’s old headquarters. A representative from the Santa Monica Conservancy, Tom Cleys, asked that the Council “delay their approval of the CCSP until a thorough historic review has been done of the RAND headquarters, particularly as adaptive reuse has not been considered for those properties. The public input was minimized in the way in which the demolition was approved. It did not go through the Landmarks Commission. It was approved years before the actual demolition is occurring.”
Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez-Dad echoed Cleys when she told the Council to delay its decision on the Plan so it could be folded “into the update of the City’s General Plan that we’re currently undergoing. I think that gives the broader picture and gives an opportunity for all the geographic areas of the City to work well. That would give an opportunity for the Landmarks Commission to give the thorough review the Santa Monica Conservancy is requesting.” She also asked the Council not to certify the plan’s EIR. “It came before the components of the project as we’re dealing with them today and as the Planning Commission dealt with it.”
Lopez-Dad also reiterated a case she had made to her Planning Commission colleagues, saying that the additional street alterations to Olympic Drive and Second Street would “create traffic havoc.”
Mayor Pam O’Connor defended the demolition of the RAND headquarters, as did Council members Ken Genser and Richard Bloom, saying “the review was through the Development Agreement for the RAND building and acquiring the RAND property by the City and that was a full public review and process.”
She went on to say that the Council knew the buildings were “historically significant but also decided that the …merits of this project and the benefits to the community from this project merited overriding considerations on a number of dimensions” including the reuse of the land.
Genser, who also had been a member of the Civic Center Working Group, explained that the extension of Olympic Drive was essential to make the Civic Center more pedestrian friendly, to relieve some of the congestion at intersections surrounding the Civic Center area and give better access to the facilities proposed for the Civic Center.
Agreeing with Dad, Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz said that extending Olympic Drive for drive through traffic “would overload Ocean Avenue.” Instead, he suggested, it should be set up so “buses could go through. We don’t need to drive through something…we need to have pedestrians, bicycles and buses take over.” He also had a problem with “separating the Civic Center and the Macerich project without looking at the entire project as a design element.”
Council member Robert Holbrook objected to the number of housing units proposed in the Plan. “Santa Monica is a very dense city…[and we] desperately need more open space. Because we seem hell-bent on having 325 units … we are driving something that’s going to bring a developer back that will say we have to have higher buildings or larger buildings because we have to get this in. I think it’s an enormous mistake to try to shoehorn in 325 units. I think we could do 225 plus or minus 5% … and get buildings below 56 feet and get the open space we desperately need.”
Another Civic Center Working Group member, Council member Richard Bloom, responded to Holbrook’s concerns by explaining that, “When we purchased the site from RAND, there were two major things that we wanted to accomplish: open space and affordable housing…we originally wanted to build many more units than the 325 units so we’ve already pared down the number of units to be built already and we want to place in an area that is not the most likely place for open space in the Civic Center.”
Council member Bobby Shriver said he believed the traffic methodology that was used for the plan’s EIR was flawed, and was also troubled by the lack of a budget for the Plan, or even cost estimates, and the disagreements about the Plan’s building height limits and the Olympic Drive configuration.
In the end, the Council approval came in a series of motions that were backed by O’Connor and Bloom, Genser and Council member Kevin McKeown, all of whom were members of the Civic Center Specific Plan Working Group. The Council approved the “comprehensive update” of the plan, adopted a statement of “overriding considerations,” and certified the EIR, with the proviso that Macerich do an EIR of any proposed redevelopment of Santa Monica Place.
The approved plan includes 325 housing units with height limits of up to 56 feet. The Council also asked staff to study the feasibility of constructing subterranean parking under the Civic Center.
The Council also approved a $3,000,000 contract with Panklow Special Projects for pre-construction services on the old Marion Davies estate at 415 PCH (see separate story on page 1, col 1).In other business, the Council appointed Katz and Genser to an ad hoc committee to work with City staff on different options for a solid waste management study that would include rate structures.