SANTA MONICA — A new vision for a Civic Center debuted at the Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday night, but its beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The plan won accolades from about half of the speakers and the beholders who mattered most: the City Council. Members voted 6 to 1 to approve the plan in concept, with Councilman Kelly Olsen dissenting.
"I find the plan very exciting," said Councilwoman Asha Greenberg.
Detractors, meanwhile, continued to deride the plan as overdevelopment of the heart of the city and asked that the matter be put to the voters. One tongue-in-cheek flyer offered a contest to name the Civic Center and included suggestions such as Playa No Vista, Edifice Complex and Vertical Reality.
"I ask you not to approve a mini-Versailles by the sea," said resident Laurel Roennau.
Although the plan does not address where all the money would come from, it is comprehensive. As it stands now, it calls for about 11 acres of public park in five areas, with the largest one, almost as large as Marine Park, behind the Civic Auditorium.
A large public plaza is envisioned to set off City Hall and a new, narrow east-west street would run between the courthouse and City Hall, leading to the 4th Street on-ramp of the freeway.
The vexing issue of parking is resolved by a six-level above-ground structure behind the courthouse and across the street from the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel. (Underground parking would cost about $50 million more.) A new police station would be built between the parking garage and the freeway.
In addition, RAND Corp., the international think tank and the largest private landowner in the area, would expand on its site. RAND also plans to build office and retail space on property it owns on Ocean Avenue as well as 350 residential units in front of the courthouse for a total of 1.2 million square feet.
The new design for the nine-square-block area came from a working group consisting of Councilmen Ken Genser and Paul Rosenstein, who are usually antagonists in planning matters, and three planning commissioners. The public was invited to participate in design workshops.
The committee's inspiration was Boris Dramov, an owner of the San Francisco architectural firm ROMA, who is best known around town for his award-winning design of the Third Street Promenade. Dramov served as a design consultant to the group.
The group's charge was to flesh out an earlier nuts-and-bolts zoning plan that lacked a unifying theme and failed to give people a feel for the place.
That earlier plan was developed over several years, also in a public process with representatives of neighborhood groups on the advisory panel. Some of those who say they were outnumbered and outvoted have formed the nucleus of the opposition.
After the meeting, Mayor Judy Abdo assessed the opposition as "sparse." But opponents are vocal and Civic Center supporters hope to avoid trying to explain a complex plan to voters.
"We don't have Town Hall democracy," said Rosenstein. "We have representative democracy. It's issues like this we were elected to decide."
The wild card among the opponents is State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who in a letter to the council said he will probably back a referendum on the plan, which he called a "dense city-within-a-city."
But Hayden has not publicly declared whether he would help get financing to put the measure on the ballot, which would pit him against some of his usual allies among the council members affiliated with Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. So far, his lobbying efforts with his allies have not succeeded.
Hayden's opponent on the list of the plan's supporters is Genser, an ardent-slow growth advocate who on Tuesday night offered the most persuasive argument in favor of the plan.
Critics want more open space, underground parking and to remove RAND from its privately owned land with a land swap. They dispute the city's traffic studies, predicting gridlock, and want to put Main Street underground.
"I still find it unfathomable" how RAND's plans for 1.3 million square feet "is going to have no impact," said Olsen. "I just don't know how this is possible."
But Olsen's usual ally, Genser, reminded the crowd that the money to pay for the public improvements was coming in part from RAND, so thwarting the think tank meant there was "no hope of anything happening."
Genser also addressed the oft-repeated wish of project opponents to move RAND. "We can't force someone to trade land," he said. "We can condemn it and buy it," but there is no money to do that.
As for RAND's politically incorrect association with the defense industry, Genser said planning decisions should not be made on politics or points of view.
The plan, with some modifications, will come back to the council in late November for final approval.
HEART OF THE CITY: A plan aimed at turning the hodgepodge Civic Center area in Santa Monica into something spectacular won the conditional approval of the City Council Tuesday night. But opponents of the plan say the only spectacular thing about it is its negative impacts. They vow to take the matter to voters in a referendum.