Proponents of a plan to remake the Santa Monica Civic Center were ecstatic Wednesday after voters approved the controversial referendum by an unexpectedly wide margin.
Ballot measures D and E, which concerned the adoption and amendment of the Civic Center Specific Plan, both passed with more than 60% of the vote, according to unofficial returns. With all precincts reporting, Measure D was approved 10,616 to 6,689, while Measure E was approved 10,350 to 6,778. Official totals, including late-arriving absentee ballots, may not be ready for several days after Tuesday's vote.
"We're elated," said Jim Thomson, president and CEO of RAND Corp., an international think tank based in Santa Monica that helped lead the drive for the plan, which allows RAND to develop its property near the Civic Center. "I think the key message here is that the campaign to explain carefully to voters what this entails overcame the negative rhetoric of the opposition."
Said City Councilman Paul Rosenstein, another of the plan's backers: "I think it's a tribute to the community planning process. It's a triumph of vision over fear and misinformation. Generations of Santa Monicans will benefit from this plan."
Opponents, who had pushed to have the new civic center proposal put on the ballot, vowed to keep a close watch on the project as the City Council decides on details.
"Our first concern was to have Santa Monicans decide this issue by a popular vote," Mike Feinstein, a Green Party activist and opposition leader, said in a prepared statement. "Although there is satisfaction in getting it to the ballot, we are disappointed voters had to make the decision based on a big-money, misleading campaign."
The plan, unanimously passed by the City Council in November, establishes design and zoning policies for the revamping of the decades-old Civic Center. Under the plan, existing parking lots and other property will be converted into parks, walkways and low- and medium-income housing. The plan also allows RAND, the city's third-largest private employer, to expand its nearby headquarters and develop boarded-up investment property it bought decades ago.
Opponents say the renovation will cost too much and cause traffic and environmental problems. But Thomson and other backers said that a "no" vote would have warned other developers to avoid projects in Santa Monica.
The lopsided margin was a surprise to both sides, since Santa Monica has thwarted other redevelopment projects in recent years. As late as Monday, some City Hall insiders were predicting a one-percentage-point margin. And early returns Tuesday night suggested a neck-and-neck contest.
Community activists said they failed to defeat the plan because of a low budget and low voter turnout. Opposition spokesman John Bodin said that although his group, Citizens for a Better Civic Center, spent about $6,000 on mailings and other publicity, RAND spent at least $180,000.
Said Bodin: "We were not able to present most voters with a complete argument to match the carpet-bombing mailing program of RAND."
Rosenstein rejected that argument.
"I've seen many examples of money not winning a (development) case," he said, citing a doomed effort by developers a few years ago to build a luxury beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. "If there was widespread concern in the community, it would have been reflected not only in the vote but in the opposition to the plan."
RAND's Thomson added: "Opponents had the opportunity to put their ideas into the planning process. Many of their ideas were indeed incorporated into the revised plan. But they were just implacable enemies, and I don't know why. But we're mindful of the fact that the city cares a great deal about how its downtown looks."
Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman contributed to this story.