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Height a Concern : Hotel Plan for Decaying Mall Debated

May 12, 1985|LYNDON STAMBLER | Times Staff Writer

A 300-room hotel on the north end of the Santa Monica Mall has been proposed as a way to breathe new life into the decaying promenade.

The hotel and other proposals are being debated at a time when Santa Monica's nonprofit Third Street Development Corp., formed by the council in 1983, is trying to revitalize the three-block mall.

A preliminary plan also calls for department stores, a design/arts center and a central plaza to help the mall compete with the nearby Santa Monica Place shopping center.

The hotel was proposed more than a year ago by Joseph and Pauline Romano for their Europa department store property along Wilshire Boulevard at the mall. The Romanos have not made an official proposal to the city. But at least three models have been developed for the 33,000-square-foot site, all at least 50 feet higher than the 84-foot limit set for the area in the land-use plan approved last fall. The hotel could range from 10 to 20 stories.

'Strong Signal' of Progress

Vincent C. Muselli, a former corporation board member whose firm, Muselli & Heyman, was hired as a consultant by the Romanos, said the project "would be a strong signal to everybody . . . around the state and country that things have changed here and the proper type of retailers will be attracted to the mall."

But city officials questioned whether the hotel is the best way to attract new business to the mall.

Councilman James P. Conn said that an "anchor" development at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance to the mall is important but he is "not willing to go above the height limit. . . . What goes there will set the tone for Wilshire Boulevard and the mall."

"Whatever's going to be there is going to have to be within the limits of the land-use element," said Councilman William H. Jennings. "A hotel on the mall is a good idea. But I don't want a very narrow, extremely tall tower sitting there."

'Inappropriate Site'

Planning Commissioner Derek Shearer called the hotel "a false solution (on) an inappropriate site. I certainly don't think that the proposed hotel is appropriate for that site in terms of size or use. I think that there is no way the Planning Commission would support a high-rise hotel on that location."

Chairman Ernest A. Kaplan said the corporation has not advocated specific projects, although it does support some kind of development at the north end of the mall.

The mall "is a dinosaur trying to operate in today's world and it doesn't work any longer," Kaplan said. He said the corporation is attempting to make the mall into a "viable retail artery."

Mall businesses, which include an assortment of five-and-dime stores, fast-food restaurants and thrift shops, have declined since Santa Monica Place was completed with fancy boutiques, department stores and a large parking lot.

Support From Board

Most of the mall board members have supported the idea of building department stores, a hotel and an entertainment center to redevelop the mall. The projects would bring more shoppers to the area and other businesses would flourish as a result, they argue.

Shearer said the corporation should emphasize small-scale activities rather than large developments.

"What happens is that people get caught up in the jargon, such as an anchor," Shearer said. "When you really start to look at (the idea), it really has nothing to do with the mall. The mall is rehabilitating itself on its own. The best thing the city could do is clear out the impediments (to revitalization) and sponsor activities."

Many of these issues will be dealt with in the next few months by the corporation as it develops a specific plan for the area. The preliminary plan states that a hotel on the north end might be allowed under some circumstances to go above 84 feet.

Height Considered Crucial

Muselli said the project probably would not go forward if restricted to 84 feet. He said the hotel would need to exceed 84 feet and include meeting and conference facilities to attract new business to the mall.

He said the project may be proposed by the end of the year. "Everybody seems to want a hotel. That's the sense we get."

Muselli's partner, Laurie B. Heyman, said, "Right now, the community and the City Council seem to be in agreement that the mall has to be revitalized. In order to do that, we need to attract major developments to some areas of the mall. . . . If the City Council and the Planning Commission truly want this to happen, then it will."

Muselli, a commercial real estate dealer, resigned from the corporation board May 3 because he became president-elect of the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce.

Avoided Hotel Votes

During his year on the board, he disqualified himself from voting or discussing issues relating to the hotel project.

Several other members of the board also have financial interests on the mall.

Mall Corp. Executive Director Thomas H. Carroll said it is all right for board members to have a financial interest in the mall as long as they disclose it and follow the code of ethics for the corporation.

That becomes a delicate balancing act. "You do want people who know something about the mall," Councilman David G. Epstein said. "You don't just want a couple of college professors from Ocean Park to do it all. But it does get tricky."

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