The proposed project design of a highly contested mixed-use project in east Santa Monica was rejected by the City Council at its March 22 meeting, leaving the developer to reconfigure the nearly one million-square foot complex.
The Texas-based Hines Group faced an uphill battle when it presented its design plan for the Bergamot Village Transit project before the council, due to the fact that residents from around the city have registered their unwavering opposition to the transit-oriented complex.
At community forums in 2009, again last year and at a Feb. 17 community workshop, several representatives of neighborhood associations and small growth organizations characterized the proposed mixed-use development as too tall, too dense and that it would be a beacon of intensified congestion to an already overburdened traffic corridor on Olympic Boulevard.
The proposed project, located at the site of the former Paper Mate factory near Olympic and 26th Street, would include office residential and retail space, along with a projected 1,961 parking spaces, a figure that has been challenged in prior meetings.
The plan presented to the council involved dividing the existing property into five smaller parcels with new roads leading to the proposed retail office space and housing that if approved, will be in close proximity to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Mid-City/Exposition Light Rail Transit Project.
The Expo Line, as the light rail project is commonly known, is in the process of having Phase I completed. The Phase II extension from Culver City will have three stops in Santa Monica and will end at Fourth Street.
Questions about the application of the recently approved Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) were also raised by residents after they learned that the complex could stretch as high as eight stories.
The LUCE is a zoning and planning framework that encompasses land use, urban design and transportation uses in Santa Monica for the next 20 years.
The council vote was interpreted by some as a victory for small growth groups and neighborhood associations that have opposed the project, but Valerie Griffin, the chair of the Wilshire Montana Coalition, said the vote was a victory for all residents of the city.
“But it would not have been such a victory if the developer had not presented a project that so many residents did not want,” she added.
Griffin’s organization opposes the project and cited its reasons in a public statement prior to the meeting.
“As the first major development proposed in the era guided by the LUCE, the city’s action will set precedents for decades,” the coalition’s statement said. “What is a public benefit? How will transportation demand management and other impacts be monitored? How will the results of such monitoring be reported?
“People want a real ‘village,’ not a huge village-in-name-only, or VINO. We want human-scale buildings with ground-level activation. In other words, we want enjoyable places to walk, and destinations to walk to.”
Former Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane, a longtime transit advocate, said the project was not what the LUCE intended.
“This project feels much more like its neighbors to the north, The Water Garden and the Yahoo Center,” said Zane, who served on the council during the 1980s. “I’m deeply disappointed in that, because I would have loved to come here and say that this is a model for transit development.”
The former councilman said that he saw very little that was transit-oriented except for the development’s proximity to the light rail line.
Planning Director Eileen Fogarty gave a presentation of the proposed development and an explanation of how it related to the LUCE, which was passed by the council last spring.
Hines Senior Vice President Colin Shepherd, who appeared at two community meetings on the village project, said his project would help the city with needed housing as well as furnish office space, and work well with the Expo Line to provide an alternate form of transportation.
“The Bergamot Transit Village is a fully transit development making full use of the light rail,” Shepherd told the council.
In past meetings, Shepherd indicated that he would seek to offer incentives to public safety personnel as well as nurses and other municipal employees.
Nearly 30 speakers addressed the council, including some advocates of the project.
Joel Zeno thinks the project’s mixed-use component will work well with the nearby galleries and art district.
“I’m really excited to see this be sort of an incubator space to support the creativity and the excellence of Santa Monica,” he said. “This project is really well suited to the tone and tenor of the existing neighborhood and how the arts integrate with it.”
Bicycle activists expressed their approval of many aspects of the transit village plan, but wanted more details on a proposed bike path and incentives for those who use public transportation or bicycles.
Gary Cavanaugh, a Pico Neighborhood resident who supports developing the site, wanted to see more attention paid to bicycle circulation around the development.
“Right now, it’s a terrible environment to try and walk around or get around in any way, especially for someone who is trying to ride a bike,” said Cavanaugh, who works in the Penn Station building near the project site.
The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors also backs the development. “We’d like to express our unanimous support for the Hines Bergamot Transit Village project,” said Brian Chase of the chamber. “This site is of critical importance to the success of the LUCE and the future of the Bergamot area.”
Chase said the chamber’s board feels the project “will serve as the gateway to the city.”
Councilman Bobby Shriver said he thinks the planned project does not fit the city’s temperament and standards.
“I don’t think that they’ve done their best work here,” Shriver said. “This development, just looking at it to the best of my ability to perceive, doesn’t feel like Santa Monica; it looks like it could be placed anywhere.
“And it could look great anywhere,” the councilman added. “It’s just not that great in Santa Monica, where we have different sets of standards and artistic qualities.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown said he viewed much of the public comment as an indication that there was not a great deal of support for the project as it was presented.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the residents of this city are quite baffled by the proposal before us and are genuinely interested in why we want to entertain it,” said McKeown. “The timing is not right for this project, and the project is wrong for where it is going to be and for what we want.”
The decision to deny Hines the development agreement came against the backdrop of accusations by some neighborhood and civic groups that campaign contributions from last year’s municipal elections could influence council decisions in favor of their campaign donors.
Resident Denise Barton touched on the topic of possible conflicts of interest, due to the fact that Councilmen Robert Holbrook and Terry O’Day accepted in-kind donations from Hines last fall.
“How many of you sitting up there should be voting on this, really?” Barton asked. “So how many of you are going to do the right thing and (recuse) yourselves of this vote, or look like your vote has been bought?”
McKeown asked Jan. 11 for the consideration of a policy to make public any campaign contributions by anyone who wishes to build in the city.
The councilman clarified the reason why he feels this recommendation would help the public be more aware of the entities that have a financial interest before the council. “The intent is only to disclose that money has been spent by an applicant, not that it directly influenced or might influence the council’s votes,” he explained.
McKeown’s recommendation lost 4-2.
Griffin thinks the council voted against the development agreement on the principle that they did not agree with the way that the project was presented.
“Others may not agree with me, but I think that the councilmembers would have also found the design to be egregiously out of step with the city’s wishes and would have voted against it regardless of if the public knew about their campaign contributions,” she said.
O’Day did not attend the meeting.