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Varied Visions

By Ed Moosbrugger

April 8 -- Santa Monica residents and businesses have been given a great opportunity to weigh in on the future of Santa Monica Place, but it's unclear whether the process will result in a plan with wide community support.

Differing views of what Santa Monica Place should be emerged from the first round of community workshops designed to give City officials an idea of what their constituents want.

Indeed, there is some confusion over how much influence the community workshops will have on the re-do of the 24-year-old mall.

The City Council ordered the community workshops, conducted by consultants, after adverse community reaction to a proposal by mall owner Macerich Co. to include three 21-story condominium towers in a redevelopment of Santa Monica Place.

In addition to holding the workshops, the City mailed a questionnaire to all Santa Monica households.

The first series of workshops asked participants for their visions of what Santa Monica Place should be like. A second series of workshops will include the economics of concepts developed after consultants analyze the public input.

Land use consultant Daniel Iacofano of MIG said his firm was hired by the City to start with a blank slate concerning Santa Monica Place.

But it's unclear if the workshops really did start with a clean slate.

One problem: the City Council's negotiating parameters with Macerich include providing a broad range of housing, maximizing public parking and maximizing public-oriented open space, to name a few.

Indeed, Assistant City Manager Gordon Anderson said at one community meeting that it seems the City Council is saying what the people want to a certain extent.

If the community meeting I participated in at Grant Elementary School as a Santa Monica resident is any indication, the City may have a difficult time coming up with a widely acceptable plan at the end of the public process.

After audience members had a chance to express their views, the session broke up into three workshops to try to come up with design ideas. The groups came up with significantly different concepts.

One group said that consideration should be given to re-doing the existing mall without tearing it down, but if the mall is torn down the new development should have a lower density.

A second group said a re-do of Santa Monica Place shouldn't exceed the height of the adjacent Third Street Promenade.

A third group had no problem with some buildings as tall as nine stories.

There was a bit of unreality in the group I participated in. Both department stores at Santa Monica Place have indicated they want to stay, but our group put only one department store in its plan, and that was almost an afterthought.

Iacofano told the Grant meeting that the first round of workshops was exploratory and a consensus was not the goal.

That means the second round of meetings, which will include financial data, is critical. People need to know the costs and benefits of various alternatives, including re-doing the existing building rather than tearing it down.

After the initial round of workshops, Anderson said, consultants will come up with alternatives that have numbers attached for the second round of community meetings.

Eventually, the matter will go back to the Planning Commission and City Council, ultimately resulting in directions to City staff on what to negotiate with Macerich.

The process, which started in March, should take six or seven months, Anderson said. Consultants will need four to eight weeks to prepare for the second round of workshops, Iacofano said.

The City and Macerich probably should have solicited more public input before Macerich came up with its flawed proposal. Just one example: a survey of neighborhood residents by Friends of Sunset Park found 86 percent opposed to the original Macerich proposal.

The public has a huge stake in what happens with Santa Monica Place. The final design is one issue. But the financial aspects also are critical. Santa Monica owns about 20 percent of the 10-acre site, and, if the final design calls for putting the parking underground, the City will spend many millions of dollars.

How well the redesign process works may determine whether there will be pressure for a public vote on the future of Santa Monica Place, just as when the redevelopment project that created Santa Monica Place was put on the ballot in 1976.

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