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Landmark Commission Approves Santa Monica's New Town Square Design, Mostly  

As of September 1, 2011, ALL 1,875 retail establishments are prohibited from providing light-weight, single-use plastic carryout bags to customers at the point of sale. MORE

By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

September 22, 2011 -- The debate over the redesign of the new Town Square park – the area immediately in front of Santa Monica City Hall – may be drawing to a close.

In a special meeting Tuesday, the Landmarks Commission voted to accept the latest design proposed by James Corner and Field Operations, albeit with four conditions.

“This is a significant accomplishment and a huge improvement,” Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer said about the most recent design.

James Corner, principal of James Corner Field Operations, the firm which drew the plans, told the commission that the new design is meant to “reestablish [City Hall] as the heart of Santa Monica.”

Connecting City Hall with the rest of the city, making the area in front of it a public gathering space and preserving the open character of the place are the goals of the design, said Corner. He said his firm responded to input from the City Council, Planning and Landmarks commissions as it redrew its plans.

The Landmarks Commission has come under some criticism for its handling of this project.

In May, the commission forced Corner and his team back to the drawing board when they designated certain features in front of City Hall “character defining” and therefore worthy of preservation, features like the lawn, the rose garden and the rectangular planters.

The results were met with disappointment by the Planning Commission and the City Council, both of which expressed confusion about the Landmarks Commission decision to take such a dramatic action so late in the process – effectively taking away the community process that went into the design, according to Planning Commission Chair, Jim Ries.

The latest design attempts to address at least some of the earlier concerns of the Landmarks Commission while still making the town square park distinct from the current space in front of City Hall.

For example, the design presented Tuesday maintains the basic layout of City Hall's current front yard – a central walkway flanked on both sides by green space.

To add character to those green spaces, as well as to make them more inviting as a public gathering space, the latest design places low seating walls throughout the lawn and adds a few gentle hills. The proposed plan also suggests planting some decorative native grasses and shrubs.

On the north and south side of the lawns, the plan proposes groves of sycamores – eight on each end.

The memorial rose garden would be replaced by a water fixture that would still pay homage to the fallen soldiers by having as many steps that the water would flow down as there are currently rose bushes.

Longer and less steep access ramps would be added to both sides of City Hall's front entrance for symmetry. By extending the length of the ramps and lowering the grade, the handrails could be removed without violating Americans with Disabilities Act code.

After some discussion, Commissioner Roger Genser proposed a motion to accept the new plan with four conditions: that the sycamore groves be thinned out; that the brickwork that is currently at the front of entrance of city hall be retained; that the proposed shrubs and native grasses on the lawn areas be scaled back to provide more standing room; and that the planters that would be lost by extending the access ramps be moved somewhere else.

The Commission passed the motion, with only Chair Pro Tem Ruth Shari voting no because she thought her colleagues had imposed too many conditions.

James Corner Field Operations can appeal the Landmarks Commission's vote. But if the firm doesn’t appeal, it can present revised plans – adjusted to respond to the commission's four conditions – directly to city staff. Once those plans are approved, the firm can begin filing for the proper construction permits, according to City Planner Scott Albright.

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