Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Weaving The New and The Old Together

Last night the City Council gave final approval to two downtown condo projects – the 16-unit project at Palm & Poli, up the hill from the 71 Palm Restaurant, and the 15-unit project that will be built as part of the Elks Club renovation. The Elks Club was unanimous; the Palm & Poli project passed 6-1, with Councilmember Andrews expressing ongoing concern about how traffic on Poli and Palm will work with the new project.

I was pleased to see both these projects go forward. Both projects show that we are making progress in weaving the new and the old together downtown. What a difference this is from the situation in 2004, when we all watched the Mayfair Theater be demolished and felt that there wasn’t much we could do about it.

The Elks Club project has the potential to be terrific. You may recall that the Elks Club sold the building to a group of investors a couple of years ago and it has been vacant since then. This project has two parts. The first is the 16 condos, which will be constructed in the current parking lot (without losing any parking – they’re going underground on the parking). The second is renovation and reopening of the Elks Club building itself (with its fabulous dance floor, which takes up almost the entire third floor) as a venue for events and probably some office space as well.

The Elks Club is one of our architectural treasures, built in 1928. The renovation has the potential to be spectacular. Further, in this case the developers dumped their original design for the condos, which was a pretty bulky 3- and 4-story project along Main Street that clearly compromised the integrity of the Elks Club building. The new design is much lower scale along Main Street and puts the taller floors toward the back of the lot, away from Main Street. In this way, the new condo building is more compatible with surrounding buildings on Main Street and still allows the Elks Club to stand out – as it should!

The Palm & Poli project is a little more complicated but still represents progress.You may recall that last fall this project came to us for final approval and we kicked it back, primarily because we felt that the question of the compatability between the new building and adjacent historic buildings had not been adequately analyzed.

This site contains the Hartman House, an historic landmark, and is adjacent to 71 Palm (the Norton Ranch House), which is another historic landmark. The original plan – years ago – was to move the Hartman House altogether. The more recent plan was a definite improvement but I personally felt we had not addressed the question of “adjacency” – the setbacks, for example, between the Hartman House and the new condo building -- adequately in the environmental review.

Subsequent to our council discussion last fall, the staff did a more detailed review of the compatability of new and old buildings. This led to some minor changes in the project, including greater setbacks between the two buildings and the retention of an addition to the Hartman House which had been slated for demolition under the previous plan. There are also a few other new protections in place, and the “Historic Protection Plan” for the Hartman House will now include the Norton Ranch House as well. It was great to see Didier and Nancy Poirier, owners of 71 Palm, reach agreement on all issues with the developers at last – and Nancy, in particular, gave kudos to our City Manager Rick Cole and his current special assistant Rick Raives (on assignment from public works) for sitting down and helping to work those issues through. (The two property owners reached a separate agreement not involving the city on some issues.)

The Palm and Poli project may not be perfect, but it’s very good – and noticeably better than it was last fall. We’re definitely getting better at this stuff.

Victoria Avenue Urgency Ordinance Extended

Last night, the City Council extended our urgency ordinance regarding large retailers on Victoria for 10 months, until the end of January 2008. The ordinance requires retail stores of 50,000 square feet or more to obtain a use permit from the Planning Commission. Because this is an urgency ordinance, it required 6 votes – which we got, but not without some very public horsetrading between Councilmember Monahan and myself.

You may recall that, at the end of January, we lifted the moratorium on commercial development along Victoria even though our Corridor Plan was not complete. Anticipating the possibility of Wal-Mart or some other large retail store proposing a project on the Kmart site, we created the use permit requirement in an urgency ordinance.

Under state law, however, this urgency ordinance could only be in effect for 45 days. That’s why we had to vote on it again last night. An urgency ordinance requires a 4/5ths vote – which means 6 out of 7 votes. By law, we can have an urgency ordinance in place for up to two years – and the staff recommended an extension of 22 months and 15 days (two years minus 45 days).

As the discussion unfolded it became clear that both Neal Andrews and Jim Monahan were opposed to such a lengthy extension. Neal seemed opposed on principle, but Jim seemed willing to extend the ordinance for some period of time – just not 22 months. First he proposed another 45 days, then he agreed to 8 months. The planning staff, however, said an 8-month extension might require us to put Victoria ahead of some other planning efforts such as Saticoy & Wells and Midtown.

Councilmember Ed Summers proposed a 10-month extension, to the end of January 2008. Jim was not receptive to that, but he did once again express concern that part of the Victoria effort ought to be to renew discussions with Caltrans about whether and when to build a southbound connector between the 126 and 101 freeways. (That traffic currently must go down Victoria).

Finally I promised Jim that if he supported a 10-month extension on the use permit ordinance, I would take up the 126-101 extension question with Caltrans and with Assemblymember Pedro Nava, chair of Assembly Transportation Committee, this summer. (By then the draft EIR on Victoria will be out and we will have an estimate of how much traffic on Victoria is due to the freeways.) He agreed and the urgency ordinance passed.

I didn’t mind doing this – I think we should revisit the 126-101 connector question too – but it was a reminder that you should never underestimate Mr. Monahan’s political skill!