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Council Rejects Appeal of $75 Million Santa Monica City Hall Annex  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 26, 2017 -- The Santa Monica City Council Tuesday cleared the way for construction of what might be the most self-sustaining building in California history, rejecting an appeal by a critic who said the ultimate cost will be far beyond the $75 million estimated and that one innovation – composting toilets – could be a health hazard and illegal.

The council voted unanimously against the appeal by David Garden, which was backed by neighborhood groups and activists, and approved moving forward with plans for construction of the 50,200-square-foot City Services Building.

“We are proposing a supremely sustainable building for our community,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown.

He said given the Trump Administration’s rebuke of climate change and its threats to stop funding for environmental projects, it is important that Santa Monica hold firm on the greener-than-green project.

“I do not want it to look like we are backing away from what we know is wise planning for our community,” McKeown said.

Located behind the 1938 City Hall (itself 60,000 square feet) in the Civic Center downtown, the proposed addition is three stories (45 feet) tall and includes a basement.

The building would consolidate all City public-service counters in one place (they are now scattered throughout the city in leased locations) and also would include an emergency operations center. It would house 239 employees.

The new building is designed to meet one of the highest standards of sustainability, the Living Building Challenge (LBC). City officials say the addition, if built, will be only the 12th to meet the level of a certified Living Building Challenge worldwide and the first municipal building to do so.

Santa Monica already requires the minimum of a “LEED Platinum” certification for new buildings, which includes strict environmental and sustainability rules. The Living Building Challenge pushes sustainability further by requiring that buildings have a “restorative” impact on the environment and operate at net-zero balance in use of water and energy.

Nationally, only seven buildings, none of which are in California, have attained this level of sustainability, officials said.

Although critics generally lauded the City’s sustainability efforts, they characterized the City Services Building as a status symbol that is too experimental and unnecessarily expensive.

They argued that the money should be re-directed for use on pressing needs such as affordable housing, helping the homeless and the poor and improving parks.

Michele Modglin, a longtime resident, said the City Services Building seemed mostly like a chance to “stroke egos or win prizes.”

“We should all be skeptical,” she told the crowd that appeared at the council’s meeting to support the appeal.

Plans to use composting toilets in the new building raised concerns about potentially generating harmful contaminants.

In his appeal, Garden said the City’s employees themselves were worried and that a City plans examiner was removed from the project when he told supervisors he had concerns about pathogens and other public health threats related to human waste from the composting toilets.

He cited several examples of buildings with such toilets, including the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which are struggling to handle the human waste properly, even though the structures won trophies as part of Living Building Challenge, a certification created by the Living Future Institute.

Garden also contended those involved in the City’s project rushed to get permits so they could skirt the more onerous requirements of the 2017 earthquake building code.

Dean Kubani, the City’s head of sustainability, acknowledged that the City Services Building will not be required to meet the 2107 seismic codes, but said it is still being constructed well beyond requirements of the old code.

Kubani also said composting toilets have been used elsewhere for several years without major mishap. In addition, City officials also said the human waste will be sent off site for composting and treatment, and not go directly from “toilet to tree.”

Although cost was not an issue in the appeal, the building’s expense consumed much of Tuesday night’s discussion.

Garden predicted the project’s total price tag would be about $141 million after adding the cost of paying financing bonds over 20 years -- winning him the backing of neighborhood groups, watchdog groups and others already irate with the City over development and employee compensation.

City Manager Rick Cole said the cost of total self-sustainability is higher in the beginning, but will drop as the years go by and the City generates savings of as much as $2.4 million annually in leasing costs and sees its utility bills drop dramatically.

The new building’s lifespan is a century and, if all goes right, it will generate energy to spare in the future, he said.

The project’s cost would have been as much as $8 million less if the City had decided to go with a lower level of sustainability, but stopping to re-design now would cost millions of dollars extra, Cole said.

The night included some unusual moments. At the last minute, the City said it will not to be part of the actual challenge for the certification, although it will still build the annex to the Living Building Challenge level.

Interim City Attorney Joseph Lawrence, stung by accusations from the audience of poor work on the issue by his attorneys, issued a rare rebuttal in which he strongly lauded the attorneys there.

And before casting her vote, Council Member Sue Himmelrich apologized for raising concerns in the community about the City Services Building that, upon further examination, were adequately addressed.

Skeptics remained, with several saying it was unwise for the City to embark on such a large and expensive project given the limited track record of the technology involved.

Mary Marlow, of the local watchdog group Transparency Project, said her high-tech background taught her that being on the leading edge can also be the “bleeding edge.”

“You should start small,” she said.

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