The developer of a much-maligned, multimillion-dollar office complex planned on property south of Santa Monica Municipal Airport has decided to assuage angry neighbors in a time-honored fashion this weekend.
He's going to cook for them.
"It seemed like a reasonably friendly thing to do," said Henry A. Lambert, president of the Reliance Development Group, which is planning to develop a 37.5-acre site along the far southeast corner of Santa Monica. "We are trying to comfort them and let them know that we are not a bunch of ogres."
Lambert is throwing a barbecue tonight for about 100 selected guests, most of them residents of Los Angeles neighborhoods that surround the project. Many of the neighbors have objected to the $280-million, 1.4-million-square-foot complex proposed by Reliance, saying the project is too big for the area.
The residents have been backed by Los Angeles city officials, who say that Los Angeles neighborhoods will be forced to bear the brunt of the noise, traffic and pollution generated by the huge project while the city of Santa Monica enjoys millions of dollars in financial benefits.
For Lambert, the barbecue seems like a perfect outlet for his joint interests: commercial development and food. Lambert turned his fascination with gourmet food into an epicurean empire, starting Pasta & Cheese Inc., a chain of fine-food stores that he ultimately sold, as well as numerous cafes he owns in New York City.
But the idea hasn't been swallowed enthusiastically by the neighbors. They remain critical of the development and skeptical about his summer soiree.
"I feel that I have to go, but the idea of mixing ribs with him makes me uneasy," said Greg Thomas, spokesman for Homeowners Organized to Monitor the Environment, a Mar Vista neighborhood association with about 1,000 members. "It's a placebo. I hope they don't think we're gullible enough to sell out for some ribs."
Thomas said he was told that Lambert would present new drawings of the project at the barbecue, which will run from 5 to 8 p.m. Presumably, the developer and the neighbors will also discuss a supplemental Environmental Impact Report released last week that states that the project will create "significant unavoidable traffic impacts" along several Centinela Avenue intersections.
The report also addresses the possibility of scaling down the project, an option Lambert has rejected. "There are no plans to reduce the scale of the project," Lambert said by phone from his New York office last week. "Some things are mitigateable and some things are not."
Officials of Santa Monica and Los Angeles won't be feuding over the barbecue tonight--they haven't been invited. They have been fighting about information included in the original Environmental Impact Report, which Los Angeles city planners labeled grossly inadequate.
In return, Santa Monica officials have called Los Angeles' complaints hypocritical, saying development in the western end of Los Angeles has created traffic and environmental problems in Santa Monica, which they say has been a leader in slow and reasonable growth in Southern California.
"We don't build high-rises in this city," Santa Monica Mayor James Conn said last month. "With the 25 million square feet that went into Westwood over the last decade, and the millions of square feet (on the Los Angeles side of) the airport, nobody asked us if it had an impact on our city; they just did it."
Santa Monica picked Reliance over several other major developers to build on the site. Plans call for seven to nine 6-story buildings to house offices, retail stores and restaurants. Santa Monica officials said the project could raise as much as $27.5 million over the next 10 years, plus substantial tax and rent revenues.
To soothe the anger generated by the project, Lambert and consultant Michael L. Dieden came up with the idea for the airport barbecue, which will include several dishes based on recipes in a cookbook written by the developer-pasta mogul.
"It's a different twist for a developer to take," Dieden said. "He's taking off his hard hat and putting on his chef's hat."
However, many of the neighbors say breaking bread won't change their minds about Lambert's plans to break ground early next year.
"I don't think a barbecue is going to do the job," said Donna Egstrom, a Centinela Avenue resident who is a member of one of the neighborhood groups. "The prospect of an additional 9,000 cars on our street each day isn't going to help."
Guests will be feted with lime-marinated chicken, chili, mango chicken salad, cole slaw, vegetable skewers, Caesar salad, peach pie, chocolate cake and other tidbits. Thomas said that although his neighborhood group "doesn't mind a development" on the mostly-vacant site, they do object to the size, and no amount of chicken, chili or pie will change their views.
"Our complaint isn't with the developer, who we believe has been mostly responsive," Thomas said. "I'll be happy to listen to what he has to say, but our job is to protect the neighborhood.
"I told them that I'd go only if I wasn't on the skewer. The whole idea makes me a little nervous, but maybe I'll just have something to drink."