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Civic Center "Village" Could Include Ownership Units, Taller Buildings

By Cindy Frazier

December 17 -- The question of building heights in downtown Santa Monica remains up in the air.

The City Council refused Tuesday to scale back a proposal for 325 residences with heights as tall as 11 stories at the Village at the Civic Center, a redevelopment project located on a portion of a 11.3-acre property near City Hall formerly owned by the RAND Corporation.

But the council failed to indicate how tall a building could rise, which may have provided a valuable hint at the feasibility of three residential towers proposed for the controversial Santa Monica Place redevelopment a block away.

Instead, the council decided not to curtail the creativity of the design teams vying for the Civic Center project, which includes three mixed-use, mixed-income apartment complexes with ground-floor retail, a public neighborhood green and mews and sidewalks linking to perimeter streets.

“Giving parameters conflicts with flexibility,” said Councilman Richard Bloom. “We want to encourage the developers to come back with what they think is the best use of the land.

“Can we throw it back to the three finalists and say, ‘What do you think?’” Bloom said. “If it’s 200-foot-tall buildings, we can say we hate this.”

The council also left open the possibility that some market-rate residences could be sold, although the land beneath them may remain the property of the City.

City planners told the council that selling units at market prices on the Ocean Avenue site could bring in enough money to pay for the entire development.

“Market-rate private housing will eliminate the need for City subsidies for the affordable housing project and infrastructure,” said Ron Barefield, the City’s housing administrator.

The Village is an area northwest of the new RAND Corporation headquarters on Main Street, earmarked for housing, including a minimum of 160 units affordable to families with low and very low incomes.

Development standards for the parcel -- the largest area slated for redevelopment in the city -- are in limbo because a Civic Center plan approved more than a decade ago is in the process of being amended.

City officials are moving forward with an unusual development process for the project in which three developer-design teams will compete for the right to design and build the Village.

Officials had asked the council Tuesday to give “parameters” to the developer-design teams on the issue of height and ownership rights.

“We want to give them a starting point,” said Jeff Mathieu, the City’s director of resource management.

Taller buildings could allow more high-priced housing, City planners argued.

“We want to create the land values that will fully fund this project,” Barefield said.

Height has become a controversial issue in downtown Santa Monica because of a proposal by the Macerich Company, the owner of Santa Monica Place, to redevelop the indoor mall, adding three 21-story towers including some 300 condominium units.

The maximum height currently allowed in the Civic Center area is 120 feet or 11 stories, which is the height of the Viceroy Hotel at Pico Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, said Suzanne Frick, planning director.

Councilman Robert Holbrook said he didn’t see the need for any housing in the Civic Center, but his motion to permit only the 160 affordable units failed on a vote of 2 to 5. Holbrook’s motion garnered only the support of Councilman Bobby Shriver.

Council member Kevin McKeown said the housing component was important to create a “neighborhood” in the area, while Council member Ken Genser noted that affordable housing is required because redevelopment funds were used to purchase the property and that other requirements also exist.

“There is no option for no housing,” Genser said.

Several council members disagreed on whether taller or shorter buildings were more desirable, given that the buildings’ heights will determine how much open space can be left in the area.

Several members of the public were opposed to the Civic Center development proposal, which was the result of a lengthy public review process two years ago.

“There is already gridlock on Ocean Avenue,” said Jacob Samuel. “This project will impact an already dense city. We need more open space, not less. You should put the brakes on building and development.”

Council members voted six to one to give the design teams a “bare bones” standard -- including a minimum of 325 units with 160 affordable residences; ownership and rental housing; live/work, senior, and family style units; minimizing heights where possible; maximizing open space and landscaping; and allowing “flexibility” in the number of units and heights.

Holbrook voted against the motion.

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