Santa Monica Lookout
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Santa Monica Council Takes Another Look at Major Downtown Project

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

October 19, 2015 -- Facing stiff opposition from slow-growth advocates, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday will explore ways to reduce office space at a major mixed-use development proposed for a City owned site in the heart of Downtown.

Metropolitan Pacific Capital (MPC), the developer behind The Plaza – a 12-story project on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 5th streets – is seeking a Development Agreement (DA) to build about 195 hotel rooms, 206,800 square feet of office space, 42,200 square feet of retail space and 48 affordable residential units.

Conceptually, the project -- a 148-foot-tall, zig-zag-shaped complex that would take up nine parcels strung together by the City at a reported cost of $100 million – is the same as plans submitted by MPC last year and approved by Planning Commissioners in June, but with a few caveats.

Rendering by OMA/OLIN (Courtesy of Metropolitan Pacific Real Estate Group)

“In recommending that Council initiate DA negotiations, the Planning Commission expressed significant concerns regarding the amount of office space proposed in the project,” staff said, adding that the Council must approve a DA for all proposed projects in the Downtown Core designation that exceed 32 feet in height.

Addressing those issues, the report gives the Council some trade-off options, any of which if approved could alter the mix of uses for the project.

The choices include eliminating all the office use, replacing the office uses with market-rate residential units or hotel rooms, reducing the office use by 50 percent and replacing 50 percent of the office use with hotel use.

Council members could also opt to scrap the project completely and vote instead for an urban park on the property, an option favored by several residents during public meetings, the report said.

Building an urban park on par with Tongva Park would cost the City between $10 million and $25 million, depending on its features, plus $17 million to $20 million more if the City added a parking structure, and another $5 million to $10 million in annual maintenance costs.

The property now contains mostly parking space, a Chase Bank and a Bank of America, some commercial buildings and a few stores.

First proposed in 2013, the project has faced a groundswell of community opposition at public hearings. Critics chiefly argue that putting a project of that size on prime City-owned land would set a precedent for allowing towering, dense development in an already congested Downtown.

Conceptual plans for The Plaza, which will cost an estimated $300 million to $400 million, are the end result of a two-year community planning process that included at least three public workshops.

In a lengthy review of how MPC's project stacks up against the City's proposed Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) guidelines, which are still in draft form, the staff report concludes “the project is inconsistent with the draft DSP.”

But staff also found the project is consistent with the City's General Plan, and the report  goes over the recommendations Council members have given to staff at past meetings to address height restriction and density concerns.

During a June 10, 2014, meeting, for example, the Council directed staff to keep the building's proposed 148-foot height alive while the project went through a public hearing process. The report notes that the project will require the Council to approve a General Plan amendment for building height.

At the same June 2014 meeting, the Council addressed whether the proposed height “could set a precedent that obligates the City to approve other new, taller buildings” in Downtown, staff said.

Council members agreed that “it is a unique, publicly owned site, where explicit and distinct public objectives have been identified, unlike virtually every other site in the area,” said staff.

Among the public objectives is increasing the City's affordable housing. The proposed 48 affordable units at The Plaza would be managed by nonprofit Community Corporation of Santa Monica, with rents set at 50 percent of household incomes.          

The project also includes 12,000 square feet of cultural space, 51,000 square feet of open public space and 1,143 parking spaces in a four-level below-ground parking garage.

Council members have also pointed out that the project's unique layered design places the tallest part of the structure furthest from the front sidewalk view, helping “to mitigate the potential negative effects of the height,” said staff.

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