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Santa Ana High-Rise Delayed by Some Planning-Stage Jitters

The City Council delays a vote after one member worries about traffic effects and occupancy.

March 17, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Opponents of a proposed 37-story glass-encased office tower in downtown Santa Ana had expected the project to be handily approved by the City Council, given how easily the skyscraper had won earlier approvals.

But on Monday they found an ally -- the newest council member -- who expressed his own anxieties about what would become Orange County's tallest building.

After his comments, and remarks by nearly two dozen critics, the council delayed voting on the project for 60 days so the skyscraper's impact on old downtown could be further studied.

Although four of five council members at Monday night's meeting said they generally supported the project, one of them, Mike Garcia, said the city staff had not resolved such issues as the quality of construction materials, effects on traffic and adjacent neighborhoods, and assurances to the city that the building will be sufficiently leased when completed.

Garcia, elected in November 2002, said the city should have struck an agreement with developer Mike Harrah to ensure the quality of the project, known as One Broadway Plaza, and define how its negative effects on downtown would be reduced.

"I definitely think we should have been looking at a developer's agreement before," said Garcia, a planner for a development consulting firm.

Such an agreement, he said, "formalizes stuff the developer has talked about.... I think most cities that have done big projects look at a developer's agreement."

The council had been expected to approve Harrah's request that the city amend zoning in the district to accommodate the building's size. Besides delaying that vote, the council put off adopting the project's environmental impact report.

Garcia suggested the delay after nearly two dozen residents complained at the meeting that the $86-million office building, which is expected to accommodate more than 2,000 workers, would increase traffic, destroy the ambience of historic homes and be an inappropriate neighbor to two schools.

The project site, bordered by Broadway, 10th and Sycamore streets and Washington Avenue, is across the street from the Orange County High School of the Arts and El Sol Science and Arts Academy, an elementary school. The neighborhood also includes a few 80-year-old homes including English Tudor revivals and Spanish colonial revivals.

Among the opponents was Santa Ana Unified school board President Rob Richardson, a former council member, who was monitoring the meeting at home on television and rushed to the council chambers to urge caution.

"What other city would plan to build a 37-story building next to an elementary school and a high school? I would dare anyone to think of another one other than New York," said Richardson, who served on the City Council from 1994 to 1998.

The project by Harrah, who has renovated other downtown projects, was proposed in 1999 and had, until Monday night, been advancing smoothly through the city approval process. The Planning Commission approved the project in February with only one commissioner expressing doubts.

Critics said they were surprised at the turnout at Monday's meeting and heartened by the unexpected hesitation among council members in approving the project.

"The question is, why is the council doing this now? They got the [environmental impact report] in July. Why were there no study sessions?" said Joann Ramirez, a member of the Historical Society and a project opponent. "Two years ago, we asked for a developer agreement, and [city officials] looked at us like we were crazy."

The city's planning manager, Jay Trevino, was aware that the project would add "a substantial amount of traffic" but said last month that the project's "benefits outweigh the impacts."

City officials and civic leaders had embraced the project, saying it will revitalize downtown and advance Santa Ana as an anchor of Orange County's business sector.

But critics argued the swanky skyscraper would alter the quaint ambience of downtown Santa Ana, better known for smaller-scale office buildings and older homes converted into offices for attorneys and other professionals.

The project site is just a few blocks from the civic center's collection of city, county and federal government buildings and courthouses, and also just a few blocks from the downtown mom-and-pop shopping district favored by the area's Latino residents.

Garcia said he wanted greater assurance that the building be sufficiently leased and be "consistent with a grade-A quality building."

Council member Lisa Bist suggested Garcia and Councilman Jose Solorio form a committee with city staff to meet with Harrah to negotiate occupancy and traffic concerns, and report back to the council in 60 days.

The committee, Solorio said, could require the developer to make traffic improvements before construction, lease a specified portion of the building before beginning construction and commit to a predetermined mix of office, retail and restaurant uses within the structure.

Only five members of the seven-member council will vote on the project.

On Monday, Mayor Miguel A. Pulido recused himself because, he said, a former business partner is involved in the project.

Council member Brett E. Franklin said he had received campaign contributions from Harrah when he ran for supervisor and also left the meeting.

Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez said she received Harrah contributions when she ran for state Assembly, but participated in the discussion after City Atty. Joseph W. Fletcher said Alvarez did not face a conflict because the contributions were not made in a city election.

Councilwoman Alberta Christy said she is unlikely to approve the project because if it does not fill with tenants, it might promote blight.

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