Officials Conspire to Kill Project, Developer of Civic Center Site Alleges

By Jorge Casuso

Laying the groundwork for a potential lawsuit, the developer of a key component of the Civic Center plan is claiming that City officials have deliberately dragged their feet in an effort to kill a proposed office building and buy the prime land on Ocean Avenue near the pier.

Among the allegations, the developer contends that a City Councilman and a planning commissioner arranged to deprive the commission of a quorum at its Oct. 27 meeting. With several commissioners missing, an appeal of the project would likely have failed, guaranteeing final approval of an office building which has been in the works since 1990.

In a letter dated Nov. 3, attorneys for MaguirePartners chronicled a series of delays they contend is making it increasingly difficult for the developer to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to construct a proposed four-story office building. The building is planned for the site of the abandoned Flamingo Motel, 1733 Ocean Avenue, just south of the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier.

In the written notice of the city's default, the developer claimed that the delays were deliberately orchestrated by some city officials, who hope to gain possession of the three-quarter-acre site to supplement the 11.3 acres of RAND property the City has agreed to purchase for $53 million.

"The city's default consists of a pattern of conduct that has unreasonably delayed and is continuing to unreasonably delay issuance of a building permit for this project," according to the letter to City Manager John Jalili from the law firm of Hennigan, Mercer & Bennett. The letter was delivered to key city officials the day the commission voted 4-2 to direct the architect to make minor changes to the proposed plan, which will return for approval on Dec. 1.

"MaguirePartners is concerned that the City's defaults are motivated by the desire of at least some city officials to acquire this property for public use," the letter said. "During the past week, at least one City official has commented favorably upon the possibility of purchasing MaguirePartners' project site."

The letter alleges that Councilman Ken Genser and Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen "together arranged for Mr. Olsen's last-minute absence from the Planning Commission's October 27, 1999 meeting for the purpose of depriving the commission of a quorum."

The meeting was postponed until Nov. 3 after Olsen - who said he had a job interview that night --, and Darrell Clarke, who said he was ill, failed to show up. Chairman Ken Breisch had notified the commission he would be at a Convention in Atlanta and Commissioner John Zinner excused himself because he has worked as a consultant for the developer.

"This effort," according to the letter, "appears to be part of a larger strategy to delay the project to such an extent that it is unable to obtain a building permit by December 31, 1999."

The notion that Olsen was absent to guarantee there would be no quorum is "b.s.," Genser said. In fact, he said he actually called Olsen to encourage him to attend.

"I called Kelly that day and said, 'You gotta be there,'" said Genser, who can take a position because the vote cannot be appealed to the City Council. "I figured he'd vote the way I was advocating. I went there to testify that night. I turned in a chit that night.

"I expected Darrel to be there, and I expected Susan would be better on that issue," he said, referring to Commissioner Susan White, who at the Nov. 3 meeting agreed on the design conditions Olsen and Clarke opposed.

Olsen's attendance was important, Genser added, because so few commissioners were expected to show up. Zinner and Breisch already had informed him that they would not be present, and Olsen's absence would leave only four members.

Genser said he asked staff if the commission could continue an item with four votes and that the answer had been yes. But voting on a continuance with four members present could have been risky, since "anyone could have forced a hearing" if they had voted against a continuance, Genser said.

A hearing would have virtually guaranteed that the appeal would have been denied, leading to the project's approval, since the chances for a unanimous vote to uphold the appeal would have been nil.

On his part, former City Councilman Olsen, said he had made previous plans to go out of town. He said he figured that if there were only four commissioners present, the item would be continued, since that is the usual procedure.

"Even if there had been four commissioners for a quorum," Olsen said, "it would have been and always has been the practice of the commission to not hear an item.... because they would have to have 100 percent of the votes. And ( a continuance) was always granted."

There was no reason to believe this time it would be any different, Olsen said. The appellant would surely go along with a continuance, and the applicant was prominent land use attorney Chris Harding, who often had requested similar continuances and routinely had them granted.

"Chris Harding has always asked for a continuance, whether he was an applicant or an appellant," Olsen said. "It was always granted. So I would imagine that he would have gone along with having it be continued to the next meeting.... So have them put that in their hat and smoke it."

Olsen's absence was one of seven instances cited as evidence that the city is intentionally delaying the vote in hopes that Maguire Partners will miss the deadline. The others are the following:

· The developer's plans were not distributed in a timely manner to the parties responsible for approving them. The City took three weeks to deliver the plans to the Public Works Division and never delivered them to the Transportation Division.

· The Appeal of the Architectural Review Board's approval of the project was not scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing until two-and-a-half months after it was submitted. "Normally the ARB appeals are heard within one month to six weeks," according to the letter.

· Staff comments on the developer's plans were not delivered until nearly six weeks after the plans were originally filed with the city.

· The City's Transportation Division has failed to respond to the plans Maguire submitted to them two months ago.

· Public Works did not provide comments until two months after the plans were submitted.

· The City notified the developers on Oct. 29 that a portion of the property where the sidewalk would be located must be dedicated to the city before a building permit could be issued.

City officials contend that the allegations are a last minute ploy by developers to pass the buck. The project, Genser notes, was approved by the council in 1990.

"They sat on this for ten years," Genser said. "If they don't make the deadline, it's because they sat on their tails for ten years and didn't pursue it."