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Divided Costa Mesa council uproots plans for the Plant commercial-residential project

Divided Costa Mesa council uproots plans for the Plant commercial-residential project
A divided Costa Mesa City Council rejects plans for the Plant, a mixed-use development proposed for the city’s Sobeca district. (Courtesy of Olson Kundig)

Plans for the Plant, a commercial-residential development proposed for Costa Mesa’s Sobeca district, withered in front of a divided City Council this week, derailed by parking concerns that have dogged the project throughout the review process.

Though council members tried several times Tuesday night to hammer out language that would move the project forward, they couldn’t find a solution that a majority of them supported. After a lengthy and at-times testy debate, they voted 3-2 to reverse a March decision by the Planning Commission and reject the proposal.

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Council members Katrina Foley and John Stephens dissented, with Foley calling the decision “embarrassing” and the Plant “one of the best projects that we’ve had come before us in the city.”

The Plant plan called for redeveloping roughly 2.2 acres at the corner of Baker Street and Century Place by renovating three commercial buildings with retail and dining surrounding a central courtyard and adding new greenhouse and food stall structures as well as a four-story building with a blend of 48 residential units, 14 live/work units and office space above a two-level parking garage.

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The project was a brainchild of Costa Mesa-based Lab Holding LLC and would have been the company’s latest venture in the city’s 39-acre Sobeca district. Other Lab Holding projects in the area include the Camp and the Lab commercial centers on Bristol Street.

Lab Holding founder Shaheen Sadeghi said Thursday that he was “very, very disappointed” in the council’s decision and said it “robbed the local community” of “not only a wonderful place to live, but a great amenity.”

Though council members were largely complimentary of the project as a whole, they were unable to move past the primary sticking point: parking.

The plan technically met Costa Mesa’s parking standards — providing 243 spaces while city codes require 241 — but Mayor Sandy Genis and Councilman Jim Righeimer questioned whether that calculation fully reflected the need.

They pointed out that several portions of the project, such as certain common areas and some restrooms, weren’t included in the city’s parking tabulation. That has been the practice for some other projects, including the Triangle and the OC Mix at South Coast Collection, according to a city staff report.

If all the excluded areas were taken into account, the Plant’s parking demand could be as many as 63 spaces higher, the report added.

Righeimer said he felt Lab Holding should put down a financial deposit as a condition of approving the project. The money — likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, based on figures the council discussed Tuesday — could go toward a parking structure serving the wider Sobeca area or be refunded if it were later determined there wasn’t a parking shortfall.

“I’ll make it very clear,” Righeimer said “If there is not [an] actual dollar deposit put up front in some deal, I will vote no on this project and be done with it.”

Genis agreed, saying her “biggest concern is if you don’t get your money up front, you don’t get it at all without going to court, more often than not.”

Foley and Stephens, however, objected to requiring such a hefty financial commitment, particularly since the city’s calculations don’t reflect a parking crunch for the project and there are no concrete plans to build a parking structure in the Sobeca area.

“To take one of our business owners who’s contributed to the community for 40 years and ask him to take half a million dollars in capital out of his business and put it at risk ... I really think that’s a lot to ask under the circumstances,” Stephens said.

He and Foley suggested requiring Lab Holding to participate in future Sobeca parking-related efforts should a deficiency be determined down the road.

“I’m not familiar with any situation in the last 14 years where something like this has been done,” Foley said. “I don’t think that it’s a good policy or practice for us to change the rules at the City Council meeting and … in a way that has such a significant economic impact on the applicant.”

“I find this process to have been extremely time-consuming, a waste of resources for both city staff and the applicant and it’s just bad governance,” she added. “It’s embarrassing. We should be embarrassed by this meeting.”

Righeimer countered that he thinks it will “go down as a pivotal day … where the city actually stood up and said we’re not going to allow projects that come in that are underparked.”

While parking dominated Tuesday’s discussion, it wasn’t the only problematic issue for some council members. Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor said he thought the project’s residential density was too high for the area.

“At the end of the day, it needs to be less dense and it needs to be better parked,” he said. “I’ve expressed my concerns and I’m sticking to them.”

Sadeghi said he’s still contemplating the future of the Plant but added that his firm will “continue to fight to build what we believe people are going to want in the future.”

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