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Council Approves Civic Center Plan; Excludes Santa Monica Place

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

June 30 -- A major makeover for Santa Monica’s Civic Center is one step closer to reality after the City Council Tuesday night narrowly approved the Civic Center Specific Plan, a document officials say will guide the largest redevelopment project the City has ever undertaken.

The matter came before the council in an appeal by Planning Commission Vice Chair Darrel Clarke, who called the plan “a good compromise” between “many competing interests.”

“I think it’s time to make a decision,” Clarke told the council after pointing out that more than a decade of study and discussion went into the document.

The council’s approval sets height limits at 56-feet and paves the way for the building of some 325 new housing units, including 160 units of low-income and affordable housing. The ground floors will be reserved for retail and other uses.

The plan also includes some 13 acres of new parks, an extension of Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue, an early childhood development center, an annex to the Civic Auditorium and 100,000 square feet of additional space for City services.

Excluded from the plan, however, is a framework for the redevelopment of nearby Santa Monica Place, although City officials want plans to replace the struggling indoor mall to link the Downtown and Civic Center.

Macerich Company -- which owns the mall -- drew fire last year after proposing to put three 300 foot towers on its downtown property. City officials declared the proposal “DOA” and called for a series of public workshops where residents could speak out on how the mall should be rebuilt.

On Tuesday, the council said that any development agreement between the City and Macerich will be treated separately from the Civic Center plan and will require a separate traffic study.

Earlier this month, the Civic Center Plan hit a roadblock at the Planning Commission where it failed to win the four votes necessary to move it forward. Only four commissioners were present at the meeting; one of them, Julia Lopez Dad, voted against the plan.

Speaking before the council on Tuesday, Dad said the Civic Center development should be tied to the ongoing update of the City’s General Plan -- a master document that will guide citywide development for decades to come.

Dad also criticized the plan’s proposed extension of Olympic Drive saying it would create “traffic havoc” by drawing cars directly from the freeway to Ocean Avenue. She expressed similar concerns about a proposed extension of 2nd Street.

Council member Herb Katz echoed her concern and suggested that the Olympic Drive extension should be open to buses and bikes, but not to through traffic.

Council member Bob Holbrook supported extending Olympic Drive, but worried that the proposed housing units would make a dense city even denser.

“Because we seem hell-bent on having 325 units, are we driving something that’s going to bring a developer back that will say we have to have higher buildings or bigger lower buildings?” asked Holbrook, who said that open space for recreation is a better use of the land than more housing.

Other critics of the plan protested the pending demolition of the old RAND headquarters which, they said, is eligible for landmark status. The City bought the RAND property in 2000 for $53 million.

Several members of the Santa Monica conservancy asked that the council hold off on the plan until the City’s Landmarks Commission could review the issue and explore options for rehabbing the buildings, which were built in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War.

But others took a different view.

Speaking from the floor, one woman agreed with the conservationists that the RAND buildings have historical significance, but added that it is a history many would rather forget.

Council members Ken Genser, Richard Bloom and Mayor Pam O’Connor responded that the public would be best served by removing the RAND buildings; their demolition, they said, will be necessary to achieve the plan’s goals.

In two separate motions, the council voted to uphold Commissioner Clarke’s appeal, certified the environmental impact report with overriding considerations, adopted the plan with maximum heights set at 56 feet and a goal of 325 housing units, and directed that any agreement regarding redevelopment of Santa Monica Place would be a separate issue and require a separate traffic study.

The motions both passed by four to three votes. Council members Katz, Holbrook and Bobby Shriver voted against the motions.

In another motion made by Katz, City staff will return with information about the feasibility of underground parking beneath the parks proposed in the plan.

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