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Santa Monica Council Still Split on Controversial Plaza Project

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

October 22, 2015 -- Like the zig-zag design of the controversial Downtown construction project they've been agonizing over for three years amid growing opposition, Santa Monica City Council members went back and forth on Tuesday over The Plaza's conceptual plans.

At a “float-up” meeting to review the plans presented by developer Metropolitan Pacific Capital and its partners, council members split 3-3 on a motion by Mayor Kevin McKeown to scrape all 206,800 square feet of office space proposed for the project. Councilmember Pam O’Connor, who has traditionally voted to approve major development projects, was absent.

“Well, we're dead-split stymied, folks,” McKeown said.

MCB is seeking to build about 195 hotel rooms, 206,800 square feet of office space, 42,200 square feet of retail space and 48 affordable residential units on Arizona Avenue. The 12-story structure would be built on City owned land in the heart of Downtown Santa Monica. (see: Santa Monica Council Takes Another Look at Major Downtown Project, October 19, 2015)

The Council's divided vote came after members had listened to more than 70 public speakers and wrangled over The Plaza's proposed 12 stories and 148-foot height without reaching consensus.

At one point, well past 1 a.m. Wednesday and near the end of a meeting that began at 6 p.m. the day before, the discussion nearly ground to a halt. Council members could not agree on the overall scope, or “envelope,” of the project on a block’s worth of properties bought by the City for a reported cost of $100 million.

“If this is a box that we're in, it's a box we built,” said Councilman Terry O'Day. “It's a property we consolidated and bought with city funds with purpose to do something with.

“If what we're struggling with is the size of the envelope, we can tell them (MPC), 'Let's look at a smaller envelope.' And we can stop torturing ourselves tonight. If we can't do that, let's table it. We can come back and have this discussion again.”

Council members finally agreed to ask MPC to cut The Plaza's proposed office space by nearly half. They also agreed to ask the developer to reduce the project's overall size by 63,000 square feet, and use approximately 37,000 square feet remaining after office space is reduced for other purposes, but preferably for hotel space, “since it's a revenue generator,” said McKeown.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich cast the only no vote, saying she would prefer to see a project “not quite so massive and not quite so complicated.”

She said her ideal project would include a hotel and affordable housing “and the parking that goes with it, and some retail.”

“I'm trying to get away from the super-expensive construction, so we wouldn't have to generate so much money to support what we're building,” Himmelrich said.

Council members agreed to direct staff to study that alternative. Two other options also will be reviewed by staff -- a park, and simply leaving the property as is. Many residents who spoke during the meeting's public hearing favored the park option.

The Council originally expressed it desire for a combination of residential, retail, office, and hotel space, with some space devoted to affordable housing, but it has battled over how big the building should be and what it should contain.

Since it was proposed more than three years ago, the project has become the symbolic focus of those in the City who want development that doesn't add substantially to in an increasingly congested Downtown and those who favor more housing, jobs and an economic return on the City's investment in the land.

What was certain after Wednesday night's meeting was that MPC will now have to wait another ten to 15 months, according to City Manager Rick Cole's estimate, before its project is ready to return to the Council for reconsideration.

Before that happens, however, the project will likely be reviewed again to see whether it conforms to the City's new Downtown Specific Plan, which is still in the draft stage.

If MPC agrees, the developer will need to submit a revised project, essentially a new plan that includes the reduction in office space and the other proposed changes. Planning Commissioners will need to review and approve the proposal before the Council weighs in again on the matter, the city manager said.

“By that time, we'll have a Downtown Specific Plan with which we can measure this project for discretionary review,” said Cole.

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