Last Minute Switch Salvages Key Planning Commission Recommendation on RAND
By Jorge Casuso
After a two-day, 11-hour hearing that often resembled "Alice in Wonderland," the Planning Commission did an abrupt last-minute turn-around Thursday night and voted 5 to 1 to recommend that RAND change the design of its proposed headquarters.
The reconsideration broke a deadlock that had three commissioners supporting the 700-foot-long elliptical-shaped design, while the other three pushed for stepbacks and other design features to break up the proposed 72-foot tall structure slated for the corner of Main Street and Pico Boulevard.
The deadlock threatened to place the commission - which is one member short -- in the awkward position of making no recommendation to the City Council on one of the most important development agreements in the city's history. The deadlock was broken when Commissioner Darrell Clarke changed his vote and was joined by Commissioner Anthony Loui.
"I think I will support the staff recommendation with the point that excessive use of stepbacks will harm the project," Clarke said before casting his final vote shortly before 12:30 a.m.
The last-minute switch allowed the commission to recommend that the council approve the RAND development agreement - which includes the project plans, building colors, materials and design -- with several changes that the commission had backed, sometimes unanimously.
The amendments include having two entrances to the six-story, 308,869 square foot building as well as a drop-off driveway. In addition the commissioners voted to recommend that the power transformer at the side of the proposed structure be masked and that the loading dock be reconfigured to make it more pedestrian friendly.
The commission took several key actions before tackling the 41-page agreement that will guide RAND's development of the remaining 3.68 acres the think tank retained after selling 11.3 acres to the City for $53 million earlier this year.
The actions included recommending that the council certify the Final Environmental Impact Report, which evaluates the environmental impacts of the project as proposed in the development agreement. The commission also voted to recommend that the council adopt a resolution amending the Civic Center Specific Plan.
Much of the debate - which often seemed elusive and paradoxical -- centered on the changes to the Specific Plan that were needed to relocate the proposed structure from the northern end of the Civic Center to the southern end.
The relocation required adjustments to a plan that likely will be scraped after the City decides what to do with the RAND property it purchased. But most of the commissioners argued that the Civic Center Specific Plan took four years to craft with extensive community input and was unanimously adopted by the City Council in 1993.
"I haven't seen any compelling argument as to why this change needs to be made," said Kelly Olsen, who chairs the commission and who voted for the plan when he was on the council.
"I think it is a mistake on the part of the City to pass changes to overall documents for specific projects instead of for the overall needs," said Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad.
But some commissioners argued that it was difficult, if not impossible, to vote on a proposed project with little or know idea of what will surround it.
"I am actually rather surprised and amazed," said Loui, who is the only architect or planner on the commission. "The process has amazed me for not having a master plan."
The commissioners voted to recommend amending the specific plan to reduce
the radius of a proposed traffic circle on Main Street from 95 feet to
65 feet. It also voted to recommend allowing RAND to build 827 parking
spaces and as many as 1,030 if required to do so by the California Coastal
Commission, which also must review the proposed project.
"I haven't head any compelling argument other than the word 'security,' and the word 'security' conjures up the word 'fire,'" Olsen said.
The commission also voted not to recommend that the proposed building abide by the Specific Plan to include 5,000 square feet of "visitor-serving commercial uses."
Loui argued that including retail space would discourage RAND employees from leaving the building and frequenting nearby establishments. Olsen argued that it would fit in with the public nature of the Civic Center.
The commission did not buy RAND's request to expand the building's permitted uses in case it needs to lease some of the space in the future. Instead, the commission recommended that the council define institutional use to make it more confining.
But the major disagreement centered on the design of the proposed building.
Opponents, led by Olsen, argued that the proposed structure - whose faced stretches the length of two football fields - is far too bulky and needs to be broken up with stepbacks, punched openings and other design features.
"The project can be designed with substantial changes," said Olsen. "As I see it, this is an enormous building. I just can't agree with the massing of this. I can't see how we can make this project fit."
Supporters argued for the unusual sleek design would be compromised by changes.
"I just like it," said Commissioner Barbara Brown, who is an attorney. "I have an emotional response."
"There is an integrity to the design that if we start doing things to it we might lose," said Loui.
Clarke, who supported the design, was wary of approving general changes, which he argued would give the council a choice between a designed building and "what's behind the curtain.
"I would consider stepbacks," Clarke said before voting for the original design. "But I wouldn't blindly incorporate them."
The commissioners pondered the implications of failing to make a recommendation after 11 hours of hearings.
"I don't think because we didn't come up with a recommendation that the time has been wasted," said Brown, who held fast to her support of the design. "What they know is how difficult this thing is."
Clarke then made a motion to reconsider the decision, saying that the "words are fuzzy about the stepbacks."
It was the third time since he was appointed 13 months ago that Clarke has changed his position after voting on an issue.
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