The controversy over the proposal to build Santa Monica's first five-story auto dealership was continued again Tuesday when the City Council voted to return the project to the Planning Commission.
In January, Robert Kramer, one of the city's largest auto dealers, applied to build a 60,804-square-foot Honda dealership at 18th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. The facility would have three levels of parking and storage for new cars, 20 auto service bays and two showrooms.
The proposal is the first test of a section of the city's land-use plan, approved last year, that encourages the expansion of auto dealerships, which provide 25% of the city's sales tax revenues. Although other buildings on Santa Monica Boulevard are limited to three stories, or 45 feet, dealers are permitted to build to 54 feet, or four to five stories.
But Kramer has met substantial opposition from residents, who organized Santa Monicans for Reasonable Growth to fight the project. In June, the Planning Commission asked Kramer to redesign the project. In August, Kramer returned with some modifications. The Planning Commission, with only four of its seven members present, deadlocked on the project and effectively denied it.
Kramer appealed the decision to the City Council. On Tuesday, after hearing four hours of testimony, the council voted 6 to 1, with Councilman William H. Jennings opposing, to ask Kramer for substantial design changes. He was asked to incorporate service traffic within the building, enclose a service aisle to cut down on noise and fumes, include employee parking on the site and design the project to ensure that a 17-foot transition area next to an apartment building is not used for commercial purposes.
At the meeting, Kramer made a last-minute proposal to remove one level from the project and change the service entrance. But the council decided the Planning Commission should consider all design changes. In voting to return the proposal to the commission, allowing it 90 days to reach a final decision on the project. The vote also means that the project could again end up before the City Council.
The council also voted unanimously to ask the staff to decide whether environmental reports are necessary on the auto dealerships as well as "other enterprise zones" in the city. The motion, made by new Councilman Alan S. Katz, requests a broad look at the city's policies on environmental impact reports.
After the meeting, Kramer revealed his frustration. "It's a mine field and we are trying to keep from stepping on mines," he said. "The next step is to define the drawings to convey the changes we were talking about with the council tonight."
Kramer noted that he had been before the Planning Commission several times and that the "final decision was that they couldn't accept or deny (the project). We're being sent back to the same body that couldn't make a decision before."
Representatives for the residents were clearly elated by the decision.
"This is a direct result of the widespread response of citizens," John Belsher said. "From 9th Street to 20th Street there are citizens impacted by the auto dealerships."
"The Planning Commission told him unanimously and the City Council told him almost unanimously that his project stinks," said resident Jack Rubens. "At what point is he going to consider a project that comes close to meeting the desires of the neighbors. I'm very encouraged by the fact that the City Council is willing to take a hard look at the intrusive effects of dealerships on residents along Santa Monica Boulevard."
In the appeal before the City Council, Kramer's attorney, Sherman Stacey, said that the project was designed to meet terms of the city's new land-use plan that was passed last year. "It was not an easy road," he said.
Stacey noted that the plan asks auto dealers to consolidate auto sales, service, employee and visitor parking on one site. He said that the land-use plan was intended to resolve the "rancor" in the city over development. "Perhaps it is unfortunate in the first example . . . that we have resolved little of the rancor."
Among numerous issues, the residents complained that the proposed building is too large for the site, that there would be lines of cars waiting for service and that the dealership would block out the sun to an adjacent apartment building.
Council members apparently shared the neighbors' concerns. Councilman Dennis Zane applauded the decision to send it back. "When we begin to talk about closing off a street to make a development possible . . . it must be an acknowledgment that there are consequences that need to be addressed. . . . What the motion (to refer it to the Planning Commission) says is that we are looking for ways to make this project neighborhood friendly."
Councilman David G. Epstein said that "the basic source of the problem was an attempt to concentrate a large number of functions on a small site. It couldn't be done without pushing at the edge of what is described in the land-use element."
Councilman James P. Conn said that the Planning Commission is the appropriate agency to make the decision. "I want them to deal with this," he said.
But Jennings questioned the wisdom of the action. "Are we doing anything by sending it back to the Planning Commission? . . . Our job is to make these political decisions and not defer to somebody else," he said.