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Not Quite There: RAND Project Faces More Changes

By Teresa Rochester and Jorge Casuso

RAND Corp. still has several hurdles to clear if the world-renowned think-tank is to build its new five-story headquarters and keep its 1,100 employees in the city that has been its home for half a century, according to a staff report released Wednesday.

The report calls for further changes to the proposed facility's already altered elliptical design, which resembles twin slices of glass and concrete. It also recommends that the Planning Commission turn down a request by RAND to allow other institutional uses in the future.

But while RAND officials say they're pleased with the City's overall recommendation to approve the 308,856 square foot project, they acknowledge that there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed.

RAND back facade (Ocean Ave. and the new Olympic Drive)

"We are pleased that City staff is recommending approval of the project," said Michael Rich, RAND's executive vice president. "At our two public open houses about the project, many guests praised the building's elegant design and said that it was a worthy addition to our civic center. There are still a handful of important issues that need to be ironed out."

But City officials are not happy. In their report City staff balked at the elimination of pedestrian corridors, stating it is not conducive to the pedestrian-friendly goal of the Civic Center Specific Plan, which envisions, among other things, wide-open green spaces and a plaza. They recommend that the Planning Commission mandate the corridors as part of the project.

City staff also is calling for the inclusion of more stepbacks to decrease the mass of the building, as well as other new design features to break up what they describe as the monolithic feel of the structure, which will rise about 68 feet above street level.

"We're not saying they have to develop a smaller building but that they have to use design elements to decrease the massive feeling of the building," said Deputy Planner Andy Agle. "They've done some but not enough."

After selling 11.6 acres of its prime real estate near the beach to the City earlier this year for $53 million, the non-profit think tank is now finding itself shoe horned into its remaining oddly shaped 3.68 acres nestled in the bend on Main Street near Pico Boulevard.

Project architects contend that they already have incorporated many of the suggested changes into the new design and that space restrictions limit further changes without destroying the integrity of the proposed building.

"Instead of seeing the building in one solid form we've worked hard to articulate it as two arcs," said architect Paul Danna of DMJM, which designed the proposed headquarters. "There's more variety to the facade and play in the form of the building.

"I'm happy with it and it still functions well for RAND," Danna said at Saturday's open house. "It's part of the evolution process a building goes through. We're very happy with it and the result of the back and forth we've had."

Because of the size and nature of the RAND project, the Planning Commission - which counts on only one design expert among its seven members -- will act as the Architectural Review Board during its public hearing next Wednesday. The commission will be responsible for reviewing and approving all of the new headquarters' design elements, including colors and materials.

"It's actually a role the Planning Commission plays whenever there is an appeal of the ARB," said Agle. "The City Council has appointed the Planning Commission to really help review projects from the public's perspective so they review projects to ensure the public interest and public good is satisfied by the project."

Another key disagreement between RAND and the City centers on the parcel's mandated use, which is currently limited to a single tenant and restricted to institutional research and development. Think-tank officials are calling for the use to be broadened to include educational, research and development and technology offices.

RAND officials argue that the change is needed for "future flexibility in the event they need to downsize their use of the building or leave the building all together," according to the staff report.

"RAND is not seeking a zoning change to commercial general office use. Period," Rich said. "We are only asking that the language, which restricts the use of our parcel to essentially RAND, be broadened slightly to 'institutional use.'

"The City's more specific phrasing is so limiting that it unnecessarily and severely reduces RAND's ability to address changes in our business environment in a timely manner," Rich added. "This project is a huge investment for us and some future flexibility will make it a safer and more manageable one."

City staff argues that a change in use would cause additional impacts on traffic and air quality that cannot be mitigated. They suggest that if RAND needs to move or reorganize, the City could consider amending RAND's development agreement.

Bucking a recent and fervent City trend of preserving historic buildings, the report also calls for the demolition of the old RAND facilities, which are a prime example of postwar modernism and the birthplace of major innovations from circling spaceships to email.
Preservationists contend that RAND's sprawling low-rise building likely qualifies for historic landmark status on the Federal, state and local levels.

Before RAND demolishes its 1950s facility once the think tank moves into its new headquarters (part of its purchase agreement with the City), the City Council will have to adopt a statement of overriding consideration. The statement would be based on the benefits of using the land to help meet open space and affordable housing goals.

Another reason the City gives to warrant the demolition is the site's sprawling nature, which is inconsistent with the Civic Center Specific Plan that calls for increased pedestrian uses.

"The City Council will have to adopt overriding considerations," said Agle. "They could recognize the potential significance but there are greater considerations that would allow the buildings to be demolished. I'm not aware of any commission that could override that."

Due to RAND's development agreement, the issue will not go before the Landmarks Commission.

RAND's proposed project also calls for:

· The reduction of the size of the proposed Main Street Circle from a 95-foot radius to a 65-foot radius. City staff agrees with the change.

· 827 parking spaces that will be located in three-and-one-half levels of subterranean parking. RAND also has proposed 1,030 spaces in the event the powerful Coastal Commission requires that the project provide the amount of parking required by the Santa Monica Municipal Code. City Staff supports the proposed 827 spaces based on traffic counts that showed a peak demand for 781 spaces. The city would only support 1,030 spaces if the Coastal Commission requires it.

·The use of tinted, low reflecting glass to make the structure more energy efficient, which the city supports.

At its meeting Wednesday, the Planning Commission will be charged with recommending to the City Council whether the project should be approved and whether it requires any necessary amendments.

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