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Council Repeals Approval of Controversial Development

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

May 14, 2014 -- A controversial agreement for a mixed-use development approved by the City Council earlier this year will not go forward after the council voted Tuesday night to rescind its decision.

The vote came after the City was presented with a resident-signed petition, and the council had the option of either rescinding its approval or bringing the question to the voters in an election.

Four council members voted for the repeal, one opposed it and two abstained.

The council’s vote came at an eventful meeting that was preceded by a rally in front of City Hall featuring more than 200 opponents of the project known as the Bergamot Transit Village.

It would have featured 765,000 square feet of development, nearly half of it for so-called creative office space at the abandoned Papermate factory site on 26th Street, across from where one of Santa Monica’s three Expo light rail sites will be located.

Also included in the plans were housing, restaurant/retail space and other features, including $32 million in community benefits over 55 years.

Nearly all the few-dozen public speakers at the meeting opposed the project, and several spoke about a changing Santa Monica that was becoming congested with over-development and traffic due to what they said were government decisions being made with little to no public input.

Many of these speakers had participated in the petition drive led by the slow-growth group Residocracy that collected approximately 13,500 signatures, more than twice the amount needed to force the question to the ballot.

Representatives from Hines, the Texas-based developer that owns the property, attended the meeting, but they did not speak.Hines has three options for what to do next.

The developer could begin a new development agreement process that could take as long as the seven years this one took, build a project on the property that meets the City’s zoning laws and does not require a development agreement or function on the property with what is currently there.

Three of the council members who favored the repeal -– Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer and Tony Vazquez -- also voted against the project in February. The fourth vote for the repeal came from Gleam Davis, who had voted for the project at the previous meeting.

“Putting this on the ballot in November will run a serious risk of creating great rifts in this community that may take a very long time to heal, and that ultimately will not be beneficial to the community,” said Davis, who said she was also concerned lots of money would be poured into the election from both sides.

McKeown applauded the petition-gathering process as an excellent act of democracy. Vazquez and Winterer talked about what they said were flaws with the project, including that it would bring too much traffic to the area and did not feature enough affordable housing. Winterer said rescinding the approval would be “an opportunity to come up with a better project.”

Council member Terry O’Day, who voted for the project in February, was the lone proponent for holding an election. He said many of the people who signed the petition were saying they wanted the issue on the ballot, and not necessarily voicing an opposition to the project.

With a campaign, there could be further discussion on the pros and cons, O"Day said.

“Many of the folks I’ve talked with to explain how we reached this decision [to approve the project] came to see my view when I talked to them … and it’s that deep discussion that I think we have the potential to have,” O’Day said.

He highlighted what he said were good features of the project, including that it “creates complete communities and neighborhoods that provide an example to the region how to accommodate the growth that is coming.”

O’Day’s statement was met with lots of loud laughter from the mostly opposition crowd in attendance. Mayor Pam O’Connor told the people to be respectful, something she repeated when Davis and Councilmember Bob Holbrook were also met with laughter when they spoke.

Holbrook, who along with O’Connor abstained from voting, spoke out against what he called a “nasty” situation, including accusations against him of being “on the take” from the developer. He said it was a “disgusting climate to serve in as a City council member, who is virtually a volunteer.”

Holbrook and O’Connor are up for re-election in November, and some political observers say sharing the ballot with development agreement could have harmed their chances to reclaim their seats because they had voted for the project. McKeown is the other incumbent up for re-election.

No official announcement has been made, but O’Connor and McKeown are expected to run. Holbrook has not decided if he will compete for a seventh term.

Among those who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting in opposition to the project were former Mayors Paul Rosenstein and Mike Feinstein.

Feinstein gave a PowerPoint presentation that featured examples of past project proposals that had been favored by government leaders and led to resident opposition, and eventually what he considered to be better outcomes. Among them was a proposal to remove the pier and create “Santa Monica Island.

“When the community ends up speaking and says ‘no’ to something bad, there’s not always a clear path to getting something great, but there’s something about that energy when people say what they want that leads to a non-linear way to something you couldn’t have even predicted,” Feinstein said.

Another speaker was Diana Gordon from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, who called the petition “a no-confidence vote” on the council’s approval of the project.

“It’s about a failed planning process, giving Hines a green light to build one of the biggest projects in the city’s history without community input,” she said.

“It’s about an erosion of trust between residents and the City, where serious, legitimate concerns about many negative and unacceptable impacts of the project were ignored for years.”

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