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The RAND Hearings: Part One

By Teresa Rochester

It was the first big test for the Planning Commission. It also was one of the most significant developments the City has considered in more than a decade.

But when RAND Corp. officials finally unveiled their plans Wednesday night before the rookie Commission - which is charged with making recommendations to the City Council -- all the hoopla surrounding the curved five-story concrete and glass headquarters failed to materialize.

The first day of the RAND hearings, which city officials had considered moving to the Civic Center Auditorium in case of overflow crowds, drew an eclectic mix of only 17 speakers, most of whom supported the proposed project nestled in the Main Street curve across from the Civic Auditorium.

Speakers included former planning commissioners, the current and past presidents of the police officer's union, a school board member, heads of neighborhood groups and representatives from a cab company and a gas company.

They all had plenty of advice for the Planning Commission on everything from security issues and disturbance of groundwater to the effects of fugitive dust in nearby neighborhoods and the impacts of construction on Ocean Avenue businesses.

But the biggest concern centered on the massing of the 308,856 square foot building, an issue over which City staff and RAND officials differ drastically. In their report City staff calls for more step backs, 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 and have a 700 foot long facade.

"It does seem to have that sports stadium flavor," said Commissioner Darrell Clarke. "I don't mean to pontificate."

Former planning commissioners, however, lauded the project, which must be squeezed into the 3.6 acres RAND retained after the City purchased the think tank's remaining 11.6 acres for $53 million earlier this year.

"You've heard about its 700 foot façade. That may be true but it's curved," said attorney Mehrdad Farivar, who served on the Planning Commission from 1985 to 1990. "The building has a very rich texture…The step backs will not improve but take away from the integrity of the design."

"RAND I think has presented you with a forthright solution to their problem," said Eric Parlee, whose term on the commission ended in June. "I believe their architect gave you a very good alternative. So this is an institutional building. It's expressive. I think it works very well."

Lead project architect Paul Danna of DMJM told commissioners that the building's design resulted from discussions with the staff. For example, the designers complied with staff's recommendation to promote the think-tank's egalitarian nature by eliminating large corner offices.

Another sticking point was public access to a proposed internal courtyard. Staff balked at the lack of public access and pedestrian corridors, stating that it is not conducive to the pedestrian-friendly Civic Center Specific Plan. RAND officials contend public access will compromise the security needs of the think-tank.

"As for the public access of the building, I think when it was first designed RAND was in the position to provide access," said Det. Shane Talbott, president of the Police Officers Association. "I think with their new physical location they're less inclined."

"This is a building with a purpose -- to provide a home for a group of researchers," said Ellen Brennan, head of the South Beach Neighbor Association. "Because of the work they do they have a high need for security.

"Since the public and pedestrians have no business purpose in walking through the RAND building, they would be an alien element, a distraction, a potential security problem, a nuisance at best," Brennan continued. "I see no reason why this building should be breached in any way to allow pedestrians to walk through it."

The Planning Commission also will have to grapple with motorist access to the building. City officials are calling for the elimination of a proposed traffic drop-off area and only one access point to the underground parking garage.

Representatives from Excalibur Cab Company, Standard Parking and others said eliminating a drop off point and limiting access to the parking lot to only one entrance and exit was dangerous.

"We're excited about this project," said Christopher French of Excalibur Taxi. "We are strongly urging that the drop off point be included in the project… If there were only one entrance it would be a nightmare."

During the meeting, commissioners, only one of whom has a background in planning or architectural design, engaged the speakers in conversations, soliciting their opinions and advice on a wide range of topics.

"Did you notice anything else in the EIR [Environmental Impact Report]," Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad asked Ocean Park resident Laurel Roennau about mitigating traffic impacts around the Civic Center area. "I ask because you have so much knowledge about the topic?"

Roennau, who has applied for an open seat on the seven-member commission, suggested synchronized traffic lights.

In the hallway during a break in the proceedings, Councilman Paul Rosentein warned against viewing the project through the lens of the Civic Center Specific Plan, which governs the site and which likely will be changed to include more housing and open space.

"The CCSP was designed for a very different use," said Rosenstein, who co-chaired the CCSP working group in the early nineties. "The specific plan will have to change drastically in order to accommodate the significant amount of park and open space the city will have to build there.

"To view the building in the context of the specific plan doesn't make any sense," Rosenstein said. "We need a common sense approach for dealing with this."

The Planning Commission will continue its hearing Thursday evening at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

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