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ELECTIONS / CULVER CITY : Voters Give a Split Decision on Development : Growth: Strict height-limit initiative is passed, but the candidate who supported it is defeated in favor of two pro-development contenders.


In a curious ending to a curious campaign, voters in Culver City elected two pro-development candidates to the City Council on Tuesday, but approved a stringent height-limit initiative that the winners had opposed.

Although the 56-foot height limit contained in the residents' initiative known as Measure I beat a more lenient competing proposal backed by development interests, the council candidate who backed Measure I, Tom Hammons, lost to incumbent Jozelle Smith and Mike Balkman, who supported the milder controls outlined in Measure II. Both measures received a majority of "yes" votes, but Measure I is the only one adopted because it received more "yes" votes.

The split decision has the town abuzz with Monday-morning quarterbacking. It startled almost everyone, particularly the candidates. It also clouded the fate of the controversial $159-million Marina Place regional shopping mall planned for Culver City's western tip.

"In the Oscars, why supposedly are the best director and the best movie always the same?" Smith said. "In this case, they weren't." Remarked Hammons: "I'm very puzzled."

Hammons, a district manager for Thrifty Drug Stores, had billed himself as a slow-growth and grass-roots candidate. He heartily endorsed Measure I, calling it "the people's choice." The initiative qualified for the ballot after 3,600 residents signed petitions.

Measure I imposes a cap of 56 feet, or about four stories, on buildings in the city's busiest commercial zones. Criticizing that as inflexible, the City Council majority of Smith, Richard Alexander and Paul Jacobs placed the rival measure to the ballot. Without specifying a height limit, Measure II called for lot-coverage limits on most commercial buildings in the city and prohibited them from blocking views, disrupting air flow or causing "significant detriment" by their shade, shadow or glare.

There was one other key difference between them. Whereas Measure I theoretically applies to any project not yet under construction, Measure II would have exempted any project that had received city approval, regardless of whether construction had started--and would therefore exempt Marina Place.

The 1-million-square-foot Marina Place project approved by the City Council last month would place Nordstrom and Bullock's stores, 150 smaller shops and a six-screen movie theater at Culver City's western edge, on a site nearly surrounded by Los Angeles.

As approved by the council, the mall contains several elements that will have to be scaled back if the terms of Measure I are applied. The theater complex is envisioned as being 74 feet high, and there are two proposed 84-foot decorative towers.

City Atty. Eleanor Egan said in an interview, however, that she believes Marina Place will be able to get in under the wire.

A comprehensive agreement between the city and the developers approved by the council last month is scheduled to be signed April 25, at the end of a required 30-day period to allow the filing of any referendum petitions seeking to contest the agreement.

Although the council has the option of amending the development agreement, according to Egan, the election of Balkman and Smith makes that unlikely. With Councilman Paul Jacobs, they make up a council majority in favor of the project as now proposed.

"I wouldn't change (the development agreement)," Balkman said, adding that he thought the project had "gone through enough."

If the agreement is signed on schedule, Egan said, it will shield Marina Place from Measure I, which is not scheduled to take effect until April 27, 10 days after next Tuesday's City Council meeting in which the new council is expected to certify the election results.

Marianne Lowenthal, general manager for Marina Place developer Prudential Property Co., said she believed the development agreement "would stand up as it is" despite the adoption of Measure I.

But Richard Pachtman, a former mayor and a sponsor of Measure I, said it is not that simple.

"It would seem to me," he said, "that any councilman that would act in such a way in the face of a measure adopted by the people would face a recall."

Pachtman and another sponsor of the initiative, Robin Turner, said Wednesday that they were considering several challenges to Marina Place, including collecting signatures to force a referendum on the development agreement.

They also questioned the legality of the council's rush to approve the development agreement before the election. "It was a deliberate attempt to subvert the will of the people," Pachtman contended.

Even if the mall encounters no additional obstacles in Culver City, its future is by no means assured. The city of Los Angeles, the Venice Town Council and the California Coastal Commission all are threatening legal challenges, based on the traffic congestion and pollution the mall is expected to generate.

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