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Wilshire-Montana Neighbors Get First Peek at Fairmont Expansion

By Susan Reines
Special to The Lookout

July 12 -- In a strong showing at a time when other neighborhood organizations are faltering, some 100 members of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition tackled issues ranging from a hotel expansion to new voting methods at the groupís annual meeting Saturday.

The "Wilmont" Coalition's lively interaction with the City was underscored by the presence of several top City officials, including Mayor Richard Bloom, City Council Members Herb Katz and Michael Feinstein( all of whom are running for reelection in November), City Manager Susan McCarthy and Finance Director Steve Stark.

The highlight of the meeting was the proposed expansion of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, which the group hopes to influence by having a say in the "development agreement" being negotiated between the hotel and the City that would be needed to override the zoning code.

While the Cityís zoning law limits development in the hotel's zone to three stories, the proposal calls for a second 10-story tower similar to the existing building, as well as 600 underground parking spaces, a ballroom and new bungalows at the hotel's Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue site.

The proposed expansion would add about 175 new rooms, bringing the total to nearly 500, said the hotelís co-owner Matt DiNapoli, who presented preliminary plans. New retail along the lot's Wilshire edge would "connect the hotel to the rest of what's happening in Santa Monica," DiNapoli said.

There was little time for comment, but grumbling in the crowd revealed concerns that construction would generate noise and culminate in buildings that would block residents' ocean views.

DiNapoli countered that the hotel owns the land behind the site of the proposed tower, which would mostly block the hotel's own views. The plans, DiNapoli said, are flexible.

"All we're showing you is this is what we think is the right way to deal with the property," he told a concerned resident.

"We wanted to make sure that whatever we did was met with a degree of acceptance and community involvement," said DiNapoli, noting that he, too, is a resident of the area.

Some neighbors commended the hotelís proposal. Chris, who declined to give his last name, called the plan "a strong proposal" for an "underutilized lot."

Wilmont Chair Rob Rader, who has lobbied the City Council to give residents a say in the expansion plans, said the group had not yet taken a formal position.

But Rader, who is also a member of the Bayside District Board, added, "I am impressed so far with Matt DiNapoli's willingness to engage in a discussion with us."

Details of the expansion plans, as well as a potential agreement with the City, have not been finalized, so it is unclear when the public will have a say in the project.

In other business, the members voted to re-elect their current board of directors, which faced no challengers. The vote to decide which of those board members will hold offices will be held in two months.

Members voted Saturday to use the Instant Runoff Voting system to select their new officers. In "IRV," voters rank choices on the ballot instead of choosing one candidate. That way, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a clear winner can be chosen by tallying voters' second choices.

"It encourages people to vote for their true preferences, which in our present system isn't something people are always encouraged to do," said Board Member Amy Connelly, who also works for Santa Monica Ranked Voting.

Connelly noted that voters tend to avoid "wasting their votes" on minority candidates they favor but likely won't win. According to Connelly, City staff is exploring using IRV citywide at the direction of the City Council.

Wilmont Secretary Betty Mueller, a member of the Rent Control Board, urged residents to preserve standard voting, saying, "I think we need more time to understand" the new system. But those who favor IRV prevailed in a 24 to 6 vote.

Typical Santa Monica issues consumed the remainder of Wilmont's meeting; members discussed homelessness and heard reports on traffic management from Transportation Manager Lucy Dyke and on the budget from Finance Director Steve Stark.

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