WHITTIER — The days of building slapdash, cramped mini-malls may be gone forever in this city.
After five months of discussion and debate, the City Council has overhauled the city's commercial development standards. The new regulations give the city authority to block construction of mini-malls for reasons ranging from neighborhood opposition to having architectural designs that would contrast too sharply with their surroundings.
Shopping plazas that survive increased city and public scrutiny will look very different from those built in years past, said Michael Burnham, the city's senior planner. "Nothing that has been approved or built recently would comply," he said.
The main target of most of the changes is the small commercial development of one acre or less that typically includes restaurants, doughnut shops, nail salons, cleaners and video stores.
Under the old standards, such plazas received little review unless they occupied sites larger than one acre.
Council members Helen McKenna-Rahder and Bob Henderson argued that too many mini-plazas were cheaply built and poorly designed. They said mini-malls destroyed neighborhood character while tying up traffic in residential areas.
Some developers, however, contend that the city may have gone too far, potentially choking out needed growth and short-circuiting good-faith attempts to build on lots left vacant by the city's 1987 earthquake.
"In the cities surrounding Whittier, the standards tend to be very straightforward. They are not terribly difficult," said Steve Kuhn, an Irvine architect who designed a building that was caught in the moratorium.
If Whittier is too restrictive, businesses will build and locate elsewhere, slowing the local economy and depriving the city of sales tax revenue, he said.
The major code changes include:
* Increasing by up to 100% the amount of open space required in front of buildings and parking lots.
* Increasing the number of required parking spaces by 14%. And developers can no longer count undersize parking spaces, known as compact-car spaces, to meet the requirement.
* Requiring more backup and turnaround space in parking lots.
* Eliminating signs that stand on poles, such as those that usually contain a directory of businesses in a mini-mall.
* Requiring one tree per three parking stalls.
* Requiring public hearings to gauge the concerns of people who live and work near a proposed development.
* Providing a clearer mandate for the city Planning Department, Planning Commission and Design Review Board to look at how a proposed development would affect traffic and whether a development would be compatible with its neighborhood.
City officials "will have more control over the development process," said consultant Barry Hogan of Michael Brandman Associates, a consulting firm hired by the city to help develop the new rules.
Five months of feverish work by city staff members and officials resulted in the new standards, which are "state of the art or better," Hogan said.
The council faced a Monday deadline for passing the new standards. That's when a five-month moratorium on developments of one acre or less had been scheduled to expire.
Council members Robert Woehrmann and Myron Claxton made it clear they did not want to extend the moratorium. Businesses were suffering costly delays as a result of the moratorium, Woehrmann said, and moreover, he would not accept new standards that discouraged needed growth and development.
Passing the new standards clearly hinged on getting Woehrmann's support, McKenna-Rahder said, because Woehrmann is the most vocal member of a pro-development majority block on the council.
When the proposed standards finally came before the council, Woehrmann expressed reservations about some provisions. The proposed standards required too much lawn area--up to 25% of the lot--on small corner parcels. "That's quite a bit of area that becomes unusable," he said at the time.
Woehrmann also questioned whether the standards are so stringent that they would stifle creative design.
A conciliatory Henderson offered to yield on both points. Staff members amended the regulations to allow businesses with small corner lots to devote a smaller percentage of their property to open space. Optional design standards were also added to allow for creative touches.
As a result, the final vote for the revisions was unanimous. The praise, however, is not.
Architect Kuhn said he now faces the prospect of redesigning a video store planned for the corner of Beverly and Norwalk boulevards, near an existing strip mall. "There is a chance the project could be abandoned," he said.
Kuhn said that the redesign would cost the structure's owners, the M.S. Partnership of El Toro, up to $20,000 and that expenses associated with the store's opening delay, the new rules and the moratorium could run to $150,000.
Kuhn also questioned the aesthetic effects of some of the rules. The greater parking-area requirements might result in an unattractive sea of asphalt, he said.