A Los Angeles Superior Court decision last week upholding Culver City's approval of the massive Marina Place shopping mall could increase pressure on opponents to accept a negotiated settlement with the mall's developers.
During the summer, the Marina Place developers, Prudential Insurance Co. and Melvin Simon & Associates, indicated a willingness to eliminate a six-screen movie theater, reduce the number of liquor licenses and provide an additional $1.6 million for traffic improvements, landscaping and beach shuttles if the city of Los Angeles dropped its legal challenge to the project.
The offer was part of a package deal negotiated by developer Jerome Snyder in an effort to settle a border battle between Los Angeles and Culver City that threatened to tie up his $400-million Channel Gateway development.
The back-room deal involving Marina Place fell apart when it became public in August. Snyder later negotiated his own agreement with Culver City to ensure his high-rise residential and office complex, just three blocks from Marina Place but in Los Angeles, could go forward without a courtroom challenge.
That left the $160-million Marina Place project as the primary target of Venice area activists fearful that their area will choke in traffic.
But on Thursday, Judge John Zebrowski ruled that the Culver City Council complied with the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the project last March.
The 18-acre shopping center site on Washington Boulevard at the far western edge of Culver City is surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles neighborhoods. Opponents argued that the 1-million-square-foot shopping center would dramatically worsen traffic congestion and air quality in the area, and speed the transformation of a residential neighborhood into a densely packed urban enclave.
Zebrowski found that Culver City's decision to approve the project on economic and social grounds was based on substantial evidence.
"The fact that the political decision-makers may have made value judgments disfavored by some observers is not a basis for the court to nullify the political decision," the judge wrote in a six-page decision.
The judge rejected the opponents' argument that Culver City had not responded adequately to criticism of the project's environmental impact report. "A reasonable effort to assemble and disclose information is required, not perfection," he said.
Culver City officials and Marina Place developers were elated with the decision. "We're pleased that the court in essence vindicated what Culver City did and concluded that we complied with all requirements" of the state environmental law, said Joseph Pannone, special counsel for Culver City.
Kenneth Bley, attorney for the Marina Place developers, expressed confidence that "the project is going to be built in the near future."
Bley acknowledged that the shopping center "still has a number of obstacles," including another lawsuit filed by the Venice activists. That lawsuit alleges that Culver City failed to adequately consider the mall's potential impact on public access to the beach.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said she was outraged by the judge's decision.
Galanter said she will urge the city attorney's office to appeal. "I don't want Culver City to build this project," she said.
The first-term councilwoman, who faces a reelection challenge next spring, said again that she wants to see the site used primarily for residential housing, which generates less traffic.
Venice activist Dell Chumley, a plaintiff in the Venice residents' suit against the mall, said she saw no room for compromise if the Marina Place project remains just a shopping mall.
But the rebuff in the first courtroom showdown of the border battle could provide an impetus to bring both sides to the bargaining table.