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Planning Agency's Not Sold On 710 Wilshire's Provisions

Sticking points include the hotel project design, the hospitality workers' wages and the construction timeline.

Five years into the planning process, the big hotel and commercial project to be built across from Lincoln Park is still giving pause.

Santa Monica's Planning Commission has delayed its vote on whether it's amenable to a development agreement with the landowner that would give it a cushion of five years to start building and to hire hospitality workers at an hourly "living wage" of $11.89, plus benefits.

In exchange for the city loosening its zoning standards to allow for the development of the 285-room hotel and 15,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space at the corner of Seventh Street and Wilshire Boulevard—including renovating and building around a landmark-designated building—the property owners are offering a myriad of concessions, some of which need further fleshing out, commissioners said.

With a rooftop bar and a 24-hour restaurant, the project is supposed to rejuvenate the mid-city neighborhood. 

But there are still concerns about the architecture of the 164,000-square-feet project, which some of the members of the Planning Commission called plain.

"There are opportunities to improve this building so that it is by itself a great backdrop to the landmark rather than something that is just respectful of it; I think it ought to be able to stand on its own," said Commissioner Ted Winterer.

In designating the 84-year-old Santa Monica Professional Building a landmark in 2005, the city said it is an "excellent example of the high-rise Spanish Colonial Revival."

Commissioner Jason Parry wondered if it might be nice to have two landmark buildings at 710 Wilshire Blvd. 80 years from now. Although he said he liked how the buildings would look from the intersection of Wilshire and Seventh, he thought the project design looked unexciting from other vantage points.

When developers first floated the project in 2005, it was it was even more sizable at eight stories tall. It was originally supposed to consist of 16 multi-family residential units and 26,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space.

After opposition from the city and community, plans were scaled down significantly to reduce the building mass along 7th and Wilshire, to shorten the height to six stories and to move the multi-family units to a nearby parcel that fronts Lincoln Boulevard.

Some of the development agreement elements that commissioners did not object to were the hotel:

  • Providing paid internships to Santa Monica students.
  • Paying $244,000 for road and traffic improvements in the area.
  • Constructing a public ground-floor walkway and courtyard between the historic Santa Monica Professional Building and the new hotel.
  • Building to LEED Silver certification or equivalent.

One year ago, the City Council indicated strong support for the development agreement, including a living-wage provision. There's already a living-wage ordinance in Santa Monica, but like those of most cities in California and across the country, the ordinance is limited to subsidized private companies and projects.

The Planning Commission received facts and figures about the wage proposal just before its meeting started Thursday night, which commissioners said was not enough time to make an informed decision about whether $11.89 would be appropriate.

Rachel Torres, a research analyst at Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality workers union for employees in Los Angeles and Orange County, suggested that the wage should be closer to $14 or $15.

"On behalf of the 20,000 residents we represent ... we're really disappointed that the report on the living wages came out literally minutes before this meeting," Torres said.

A handful of local union workers testified before the commission about the benefits of a living wage.

"Santa Monica benefits from high occupancy rates, higher hotel rates; hotel workers should benefit from that as well," Torres said.

Another hangup is that the city and hotel developers appear to be at odds over the construction timeline.

The landowner wants seven years from the date the development agreement is approved to apply for building permits, along with the ability to request three one-year extensions from the planning department.

City staffers called the time period "excessive."

"The longest date that was recently approved for a similar hotel project that
included a landmark structure was three years with the possibility of requesting an additional two years," they wrote in a memo.

The Planning Commission's vote whether to recommend that the City Council approve the development agreement is expected in the next 30 days.

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