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Planning Commissioners Unhappy with Changes to Town Square Project

 

By Gene Williams
Lookout Staff

June 10, 2011 -- Project designs for the Palisades Garden Walk are coming together nicely, but the latest concept for the adjacent Town Square is going in the wrong direction, The Planning Commission said Wednesday.

The pronouncement came as City staff gathered commissioners’ comments to take to the City Council next week, when council members will weigh in on designs for the proposed seven-acre park.

Although the agenda item did not require a commission vote – and despite some commissioners having minor concerns – Wednesday’s discussion clearly indicated their support for the proposed Garden Walk designs, which include native and drought-tolerant plants spread over an undulating, arroyo-like landscape with water features and winding paths.

But commissioners were less enthusiastic about its smaller sister project, the Town Square, envisioned as a gathering place in front of City Hall. The designs drew more questions and some sharp criticism – mostly directed at the Landmarks Commission.

After a lengthy public process to help design the Town Square, the Landmarks Commission made what some are calling a last-minute game change when it marked eight features on City Hall’s front yard for preservation -- including its lawn, rose garden, rectangular planting beds and the area’s overall geometric layout.

The May 9 decision sent designers back to the drawing board to make some hasty revisions which were presented to the Planning Commission Wednesday.

Some commissioners and others say the Landmarks Commission subverted months of public involvement, and the revisions diminish the project.

“I’m very disappointed that the community process that went into the Town Square has been taken away,” Planning Commission Chair Jim Reis said.

“And my guess is that one of the tables we had at one of community meetings had more people than showed up at the Landmarks Commission [hearing],” he said.

Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer and others specifically questioned the wisdom of preserving City Hall’s lawn.

“I’m a little concerned that we will have these unusable grass lawns that might look decorative but serve no function in terms of gathering space,” Winterer said.

It’s also undermines Santa Monica’s image as a sustainable city, Winterer said.

“What kind of message are we sending to our community when we’re trying to be completely water-sufficient ….and [giving] incentives to residents to remove lawns, but in front of the center of our government we’re going to have grass?” Winterer said.

“I find that perplexing,” he said.

Staff tried to explain the process that led up to the Landmarks Commission’s findings:

Landmarks commissioners had met several times last year with designers from James Corner and Field Operations, the firm contracted to draw plans for the new Town Square, staff told the Planning Commission.

Although City Hall and its surrounding grounds have long been protected by landmark status, the documents made no reference to “character defining” elements on the grounds worthy of preservation, staff said.

That prompted the commission to contract a study. Consequently, last month, the commission supplemented City Hall’s landmark document, effectively singling out eight features found in its front yard for protection.

Since then, the time has run out for the Planning Commission to appeal the decision, staff said.

However, the final say over what actually gets built rests with the City Council.

Planning Commissioners are not the only ones unhappy with the Landmarks Commission.

During public comment Wednesday, Grace Phillips, a member of the City’s Urban Forest Task Force, first raised a number of objections which were later repeated by commissioners.

“I am personally unhappy with the Landmarks Commission’s eleventh-hour action on this after the public process,” Phillips said.

“Landmarking the grass [is] kind of disturbing,” Phillips said, adding that commission’s actions are “compromising” the “design process as well as the design product.”

Vice Chair Gerda Newbold asked why the Landmarks Commission had waited so long in the process to raise its concerns.

Staff replied that they didn’t know, but suspected that it took some time for the commissioners to develop their thoughts.

Winterer was confident that the Landmarks Commission and designers could work out a solution that is functional and sustainable while still respecting the history of City Hall.

But “I don’t think they’ve gotten there yet,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way to do this than the direction we’re going in now.”

In other business Wednesday, the commission approved an amendment to the Civic Center Plan that will increase the floor area of the proposed Early Childhood Education Center from 12,500 square feet to 16,000 square feet and remove the requirement for the center to build a parking lot.

 

“I’m very disappointed that the community process that went into the Town Square has been taken away.” Jim Reis

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