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Santa Monica's Slow-Growth Movement Is Energized to Defeat the “Plaza”

By Diana Gordon
Co-Chair SMCLC

Last week, a standing room only crowd of residents came to a North of Montana Association (NOMA) monthly meeting at the Montana Library to hear about the “Plaza” project being proposed on public land at 4th and 5th Streets and Arizona in downtown Santa Monica.

The presentation pitted DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners and Clarett West developers’ partner and senior managing director Frank Stephan against community activists Diana Gordon of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (“SMCLC”) and Ron Goldman of Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Future (“SMa.r.t.).

The presentations revealed some stark disagreements over the following questions:

1) Should public land be privatized?

2) What true “community benefits” should be a crucial part of what is built on public land?

3) What happens to the look, feel, and use of our public land when it is privatized and controlled by a developer?

Most residents, scientifically surveyed just a few years ago by the City, don’t support taller, denser buildings downtown, with or without “world class” architecture.

What residents said they wanted is growth that respects and preserves the unique identity of our Downtown with its low-slung character that reflects the sun, the sky, and the nearby Pacific Ocean. And less traffic.

The developers’ presentation

Frank Stephan used a power point presentation to explain the project’s mission, its public space, year-round programming, fiscal impacts and community benefits.

There were multiple project images of the least dense part of the project -- its northerly side facing Arizona where approximately 20,000 square feet of open plaza (5.6 percent of the project) is proposed for which the entire 357,000 square-foot project is named.

Stephan showed no images at ground level of the most massive part of the project on its southerly side where the greatest bulk is sited -- one 11- or 12-story building that extends all the way from 4th Street east to 5th Street, totaling over 300 feet in length and 130 feet in height.

Stephan covered the City’s anticipated revenue over a 99-year lease, including the hotel bed tax, public parking spaces included in an underground parking lot for hotel guests and office workers and an $800,000 annual budget for public programming.

There is also a 12,000 square-foot cultural space along with commercial retail and restaurants on the ground floor. No long-term tenant has been identified to occupy the cultural space.

In an unintentionally ironic moment, Stephan showed photos taken at various locations around the City looking towards an image of the project.

In each of them the project image was far in the distance, wasn’t very visible or didn’t appear very big. In effect, he seemed to be saying: This project is great, it has iconic architecture that will define Santa Monica -- but don’t worry you can’t see it.

In their submissions to the City, however, the developers emphasized the opposite as a real bonus: that “the mass of the building creates a strong impact on the skyline.”

It also dwarfs its surroundings as most existing building heights near the project are 50 feet or less.

SMCLC’s presentation: What is this “beast” doing on public land in the heart of our Downtown?

I referred to the “plaza” project as a “beast” because of the massive, fortress-like building on the southerly edge of the project that extends over 300’ in length from 4th Street to 5th Street and rises 130 feet.

The developers’ presentation did not show ground level views of this: Residents and decision- makers need to see this to understand its oversized bulk and impacts.

I reminded residents why the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) formed -- to protect the low slung and unique character of Downtown Santa Monica and give residents a meaningful voice over development decisions.

It was SMCLC, with residents, that stopped the three 21-story Macerich residential “towers” project from being built on public land at Santa Monica Place -- a project (like this one) that doesn’t belong in Santa Monica.

Now it’s time to do it again.

I said many residents don’t want this extraordinary, last remaining large public land in our Downtown to be defined by a luxury hotel for international guests.

Indeed, many residents believe there are plenty of profitable new and renovated hotels now being built on private land, generating increased bed taxes and tourism.

Nor do residents want to see more private commercial office space in the Downtown, exacerbating the jobs/housing imbalance and adding to our traffic woes. That’s why residents defeated the Hines project a few years ago through a referendum that would have required a public vote had the City Council not rescinded its approval.

Nor do residents want to experience 5,000 additional car trips at peak hours trying to get into and out of a Downtown that is already gridlocked.

What residents want is for this unique public land site to be for public-centered uses, with the essential question for its future use to be: “What do we need that’s missing from our Downtown or our City” that will feel like Santa Monica, invite us to visit the Downtown and make us proud?

I reminded residents that voters previously turned down a luxury hotel on the public land at 415 PCH, resulting in the Annenberg Community Beach House that is a public recreational use with City programming.

The strongest area of disagreement was over what degree public land should be privatized. As proposed, much of the project’s above ground open space would serve as a private amenity for office and hotel tenants.

The public “plaza” portion of the project would be patrolled by private security guards; the public “plaza” area would be used to generate revenue for the programming the developers intend to offer, including corporate sponsorship branding, and the public “plaza” could be used for private events.

The net effect would be to transform our public land into a controlled place that doesn’t feel public. The City would be turning public land over to private industry to police and adopt restrictive rules for its use and operation.

To do so would be a fundamental failure of our City’s obligations to protect our public land assets and be stewards of it for the future.

I also discussed the unacceptable additional 5,000 daily car trips this project would generate; even more if the 48 residential units were replaced by office or hotel use as studied in the draft environmental impact report (DEIR).

I reminded residents that 20 years ago, the huge Target Store proposed just one block away was rejected by the City Council -- because of its expected 5,000 additional car trips into the heart of the Downtown. And the traffic in Downtown has worsened since then.

Bottom line: Residents don’t have to allow their tax dollars to go towards a bad project that will redefine our Downtown for the next 100 years.

SMa.r.t. Presentation

Ron Goldman of Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SMa.r.t.) discussed various proposals for leaving much of the public land as an open space urban plaza that would define Santa Monica and harmonize with the rest of the Downtown and its unique environment.

He pointed to great plazas and parks in other cities that are treasured and give much needed breathing space to the denser developed areas around them.

And he showed a similar “hinged building” design by the same developer built in Singapore and said this building does NOT belong in Santa Monica.

Q and A

Asked in the Q & A that followed whether they would support a referendum to stop this project, almost everyone in the room of over 70 residents raised their hands.

The audience directed almost all of its questions to the developer, especially questions about the degree of privatization of the public land and the use of private security guards.

A photographer in the audience said that these “you can’t see it” photos were misleading because they were taken with a wide-angle lens which magnified where the photographer stood and minimized the scale and mass of the project model shown in the distance.

No one in the audience spoke in favor of the project.

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