As I watched the City Council rescind its approval of the Hines Paper Mate site project what became overwhelmingly apparent was that by the end of the road, after seven years, Hines and its project were alone. Friendless. From the public, only the indefatigable Jerry Rubin spoke in favor of the project. All those supporters from before, vanished.
From the dais, there wasn’t much more support. Terry O’Day voted for the project again, but he acknowledged it was not the best it could be. Risk-averse, he voted for it because he feared the worst. Gleam Davis defended the project, but, conflict-averse, she voted to rescind. Bob Holbrook spoke little about the project, instead lamenting how nasty politics had become, and noting that change was inevitable. Pam O’Connor didn’t have to say anything.
The most profound silence came, however, from the developer. Ever since Hines got the four votes its execs thought were all they needed, the company has done nothing, at least in public, to defend its project. There was no campaign contra the signature gathering, and there were no offers to revise the project in the face of the opposition against it. Was this ambivalence or fatalism? Or arrogance?
Through my column (and occasionally over breakfast) I have been telling Hines for five years that to be approved Paper Mate had to be a residential project because adding even one car trip to the intersection of 26th and Olympic would drive people crazy. I’ve talked to brick walls that listen better.
In fairness to Hines, they thought they had a deal, because the City, in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, wanted more commercial office space in the Bergamot area, and that’s what the LUCE called for. The council approved the LUCE on a 7-0 vote, and Hines had grounds to believe that that was the deal. Times change, however, and ultimately it is the developer’s responsibility to call an audible when they do. Hines should have asked to amend the LUCE so that it could develop a residential project.
The crucial moment took place in February when Hines got its four votes. Hines could have had six, which would have changed the political dynamic entirely, if someone from the company had jumped up that night to accept the offer that Ted Winterer made to approve the deal if 150,000 square feet of commercial development was shifted to residential. (Winterer had other concerns as well, notably about architecture, but one assumes they could have been resolved.)
Winterer’s proposal would have entailed more environmental review, because the scope of the environmental review had remarkably not included more residential development, and that would have created some uncertainty. But it would have created a better plan. If Hines had said that night that it could make the revised plan work, it could easily have had at least six votes to approve, since Tony Vazquez voted for Winterer’s motion, too.
Memo to developers: if you have a big project in Santa Monica, you need to count higher than four.
What now? I know that Terry O’Day hopes more than anything that his fears are proven wrong and Hines does not start the process to reoccupy the existing building, but it’s hard to dismiss his fears. If I ran Hines, that’s what I would do, because they no longer have friends to support them here during a new process.
But I have hope. There’s an alternative. My hope is that Hines sells the property to a new developer, one that specializes in urban residential development. There are good residential developers working in Santa Monica already, and there are others working in the region. Perhaps the fundamental problem with the project was that Hines is a commercial developer, and never seemed comfortable with building a place for people to live.
By the way, it’s a good time to sell, or at least to bring in a residential developer partner to take over. According to an article in today’s L.A. Times, the multi-family residential market is booming. Dear Hines: You’ll get your money back.
A new developer would not have to start from scratch. A lot of good planning has been done, such the new streets and pathways. Bring in new architects and planners, however. Let them reconfigure the open space to make it better suit a residential development. That wouldn’t mean there couldn’t be good public spaces connecting the station with the area to the north. There are many urban plazas around the world that are framed with residences.
According to the EIR, nearly all the new car trips the project would have generated would have come from the commercial development. Eliminate the offices, and the impacts of the project will be entirely different.
These seven acres across the street from the Bergamot stop on the Expo line need to be redeveloped to replace the hulking mass of the old factory. It’s time to get someone new to do it.
Thanks for reading.