In a highly contentious hearing that put the Santa Monica City Council's development policies on the spot less than two weeks before the city election, the council early Wednesday scaled down a controversial five-story office project planned for the 2300 block of Wilshire Boulevard.
The compromise decision reduced the size of the structure from a proposed 101,000 square feet to about 85,000 square feet. It gave neighbors opposed to the project part of the substantial size reduction they sought, but it avoided shooting down two years of work by the the developer, HSM Group/Kennedy-Wilson Realty.
After six hours of public comment and debate that extended Tuesday night's council meeting into the wee hours, the council voted 4 to 1 to scale down the project, whose principal tenant is to be Kennedy-Wilson, a real estate auction house. Councilman Ken Genser voted against the project because he said he wanted it reduced even more.
The absence of Councilwoman Christine C. Reed during the hearing appeared to underscore the view expressed by some council members that the battle was a political one. Reed, the only incumbent seeking reelection Nov. 6, said earlier this month that she would abstain from voting on the project because she lives three blocks from it.
Reed said such proximity could affect the value of her home, but some of her neighbors and several council members contended that Reed was abstaining in order to avoid casting a pro-development vote shortly before the election.
Also abstaining was Councilman William H. Jennings, who lives a block away from the project.
The approval of the project was disappointing to two community groups, Mid-City Neighbors and Save Our Neighborhood, who appealed the city Planning Commission's approval of the project in August on the grounds that the project should be bound by new, stricter zoning laws.
"The council still does not listen to what residents want or need," Kelly Olsen, a spokesman for Mid-City Neighbors and a candidate for the City Council, said after the meeting.
HSM Group/Kennedy-Wilson Realty representatives were not pleased either. They argued that the project could not get a fair shake in the shadow of the Nov. 6 election, in which three council seats are being contested and development is a major issue.
The approval gives the developer the option to build up to four stories, provided the top floor is a "step" that fronts Wilshire. The building site is now occupied by a carwash.
Residents had sought a three-story structure, arguing that a larger project would generate too much traffic. The developers said they needed a four-story structure to accommodate their needs for office space.
Olsen presented documents suggesting that the city allowed the project to move forward in 1988 under older, more liberal development standards, and indicating it should have been examined under the stricter rules now in effect. He said the project's plans were required to be "deemed complete" on April 29, 1988, in order to take advantage of the old rules. Plans for the project came in to the city that day, but because of some missing documents, residents argued that they were not, in fact, complete.
City Atty. Robert M. Myers disagreed, saying that the plans submitted by Kennedy-Wilson were substantially complete on the date in question and that the developer had been allowed to invest in planning the project for two years under that presumption.
Christopher M. Harding, attorney for the developer, argued unsuccessfully that the council delay its decision until after the election because he feared his client would not get fair consideration. He noted that some opponents were calling for the vote on this project to be a test of the council's stance on development.
Council members rejected his request, noting that none of the members voting on the matter are running next month.