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The New Clique in Town

By Jorge Casuso and Olin Ericksen
Staff Writers

April 14 -- Worried about how the building blocks for a plan to redevelop the city's indoor mall are falling into place, an unlikely coalition of civic leaders took action Wednesday to assure that all future development is "on a scale that is both sane and sustainable."

Known as the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), the group launched a Web site and published an open letter to City leaders calling the public process to determine the future of Santa Monica Place "seriously flawed."

While Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the powerful tenants group, came out in January against an initial redevelopment proposal rejected by the City Council and the local Democratic Club last month delayed a vote to "reject any massive expansion of Santa Monica Place," SMCLC is the first to take a position in the midst of the public process.

"I think it's fair to say the pressing issue is how the Planning Department and City Council have mishandled the development of Santa Monica Place," said Diana Gordon, the group's spokesperson. "We're concerned about the way in which the community workshops were carried out and concerned with the process."

Officials from the Macerich Company, which owns the struggling 25-year-old indoor mall, said they welcomed a meeting with the group, whose members have weighed in during the public process.

"It appears this is a new group with the same names we keep seeing," said Macerich Senior Vice President Randy Brant,. "Macerich along with the City have had an open door policy during this entire outreach process and we welcome the opportunity meet with them."

The prospect of too much development in the beachside city of 84,000 seems to have galvanized the unusual coalition, which is composed of civic leaders from across the political spectrum and from the Pico Neighborhood to North of Montana, including three former mayors.

"The group is across the board from SMRR to anti-SMRR, from tenant to homeowner," said Steve Alpert, a SMRR member who has closely watched and worked in local politics for three decades. "I can't remember anything quite like it."

Santa Monica Place, the group contends, is only one of several major projects being reviewed before the City completes its update to the Land Use and Circulation elements of the City's General Plan, which will dictate development for decades to come.

"While Santa Monica is becoming weighed down by traffic gridlock, intensified building is going on at an alarming rate," according to a press release issued by the group Tuesday. "New projects appear to be discussed in isolation, without fully accounting for other projects that are either on-line or which will surely come on-line in the future.

"Macerich's desire to add over one million square feet of office, residential and retail space to the site will have huge impacts on traffic, open space and residents' quality of life," the press release states.

In its letter, the group harshly criticizes the public process embarked on by Macerich and City officials after the City Council in January rejected a plan that included three 21-story condo towers, an office and an apartment complex and a park perched above two floors of retail.

"What we would have expected was a close look at what has been under discussion for so long with a wide-ranging public discussion of its merits/demerits," the letter said.

"Instead, the City and Macerich ignored the plan presented to the City Council only a few weeks earlier, ignored existing zoning and general plan requirements for the site, and made no attempt to posit a development for a sustainable community."

The group said it fears that a series of workshops in March giving members of the public a chance to construct their visions for Santa Monica Place without setting parameters gives the impression that residents favor increased density at the site, when the opposite is the case.

"Residents were told to act as though there were no planning rules, given children's building blocks, and asked to become mall designers 'on the spot,'" the letter said.

"Participants were not told how the blocks that were added to the site plan would increase the square footage of the existing mall; they were simply encouraged to add as many blocks as they wanted."

Instead of continuing the current process, the group is calling for "a meaningful and extensive public process preceded by a development proposal for Santa Monica Place that clearly shows the height and density of the proposed buildings, that is based upon reasonable and responsible planning practices," according to the letter.

"Macerich," Gordon said, "has been negotiating on the development for two years, and they should have had a design to comment on. They did not produce any designs or plans and were unable to answer fundamental questions.

"It won't be clear until the next phase whether the design has already been completed and whether the workshops are just window dressing," Gordon said.

The group posted the "key unanswered questions" on its Web site. They included:

  • What project is currently "on the table;"
  • Why can't the existing mall simply be "refreshed" without adding more density;
  • What is the City's total financial contribution to the project, given an expected City contribution of extremely valuable, City owned land;
  • What required agreements have been reached with the two department store tenants which have fee interests or long-term leases; and
  • What impacts will there be on traffic, congestion, noise, air pollution and open space?

The group’s formation comes during a 90-day process to gather community input that will help the City and Macerich -- which bought the shopping mall five years ago -- decide what should be done with the ten acres of prime Downtown real estate.

In addition to the four workshops, the initial phase of the process calls for ten smaller meetings, according to City officials. More than 2,000 residents have also weighed in using note cards sent to every Santa Monica household, while others have responded to a random survey.

The community input will provide City and Macerich officials with "a grounding to look for options and alternatives," said acting Planning Director Andy Agle.

Each option will then be analyzed by a financial consultant to determine their costs to both Macerich and the City, Agle said. After issuing a report that will likely be completed in May, Agle said, "We'll then go back to solicit public feedback on options and alternatives with market analysis."

The results will then be presented to the Planning Commission and City Council "to get a sense if there is a feasible program in terms of moving forward," he said. If the council gives the go-ahead, City officials and Macerich could be ready to sit at the bargaining table as early as half a year.

Macerich officials have cautioned that public input, though important, is only one factor driving the redevelopment.

"Although each comment we receive brings us closer to a final design, it is important to also recognize the realities that come with this opportunity," Macerich officials said in a statement released after the first workshop last month.

This includes "specifically, our contractual obligations to the retailers currently residing in the mall and our responsibility to follow the core principles the City Council has tasked us with," the statement said.

On Wednesday, the group indicated it might favor a ballot measure to limit future growth in the City in response to what members characterized as the flawed design process being pushed through without adequate public input.

Mayor Pam O’Connor, who said she did not favor “ballot box planning,” said she would not be surprised if the fate of the Santa Monica Place redevelopment is decided by the voters.

“It’s going to go to a vote,” O’Connor said. “I would suspect that whatever is proposed would inspire someone to get it on the ballot. I think that ultimately, that where it’s going to be decided.”

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