Planners Ask Auto Dealer to Revamp Proposal
A proposal by Kramer Motors Inc. to build a five-story auto dealership on Santa Monica Boulevard that could set a precedent for other dealerships on the street ran into a roadblock at the Santa Monica Planning Commission last week.
The commission voted unanimously to ask Robert Kramer, one of the largest auto dealers in Santa Monica, to redesign his proposed building at 18th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.
The commission also asked the planning staff to prepare a detailed report on the potential impact of the project on the neighborhood after hearing testimony from residents at a meeting that ended at 3 a.m. Tuesday.
Kramer, whose Honda dealership is now on 17th Street, has proposed a 60,804-square-foot facility that would include two showrooms, eight sales offices, 20 auto service bays and three levels of parking and storage for new cars.
But the commission asked Kramer to make the building appear less bulky and include more landscaping. It also asked him to set the building back 17 feet from a neighboring apartment building rather than constructing a service aisle next to the residence.
Kramer, who has sold cars in Santa Monica since 1951, said that he is disappointed and is reviewing his options. “I think trying to redesign the project is a useless effort,” he said, adding that the changes could make the project “obsolete before we use it. I see no purpose in that.”
Mayor Christine E. Reed said he probably cannot appeal the decision to the City Council. “It hasn’t been denied or approved so there really is nothing you can appeal,” Reed said.
The project, proposed for a street that some have dubbed “auto row,” is the first test of a land-use plan clause that provides incentives for dealerships to expand. Although other buildings are limited to three stories, the dealers are permitted to build to 54 feet or about four stories. The city’s 30 auto dealers provide about 25% of the city’s sales tax revenue, which totaled about $3.2 million last year, according to Finance Director Michael Dennis.
Although the land-use clause drew some opposition from residents when it was passed last October, the Kramer project has mobilized neighbors near the site.
The commission vote came after representatives of Santa Monicans for Reasonable Growth (SMRG), a group of 40 to 50 people, asked the city to compile a report on the impact on the neighborhood of noise, air pollution, increased traffic, chemicals and test driving from the project.
Resident Don Nelson said the commission should evaluate the effect of carbon monoxide emissions from cars waiting in line for service at the dealership. Jack Rubens, who lives next to the proposed project, said the unloading of autos on residential streets by other dealers is illegal and should be stopped.
But Sherman Stacey, a lawyer representing Kramer, said that residents could not point to significant environmental problems at other dealerships. He said the project “just barely” consolidates all of the dealership activities, such as sales, service and storage, on one site, as required by the land use plan.
Planning Commissioner Derek Shearer said the commission needs more information to make the policy on the dealerships clear. He said that the project could serve as “a model dealership.”
Most parties agree that the outcome of the Kramer project could have a major impact. “I have no doubt that this development is going to set the precedent for everything up and down the street,” Nelson said.
Kramer agreed. “I just feel that the Planning Commission really is making it something between difficult and impossible for dealerships to grow in Santa Monica. . . . If this one is turned down, it would discourage others from trying it.”
The project may also have an impact on the role of community organizations in negotiating with developers. Although SMRG opposed the project, Mid-City Neighbors, the neighborhood group that has represented the larger area in the past on such issues, remained neutral.
The City Council’s decision last month to cut funding to neighborhood organizations has forced the groups to seek money from other sources, including the auto dealers. In January, Mid-City Neighbors, Pico Neighborhood Assn. and Ocean Park Community Organization approached the Automobile Dealers Assn., whose president is Kramer, to donate a car as a door prize for a fund-raising event.
Although the association refused to donate a car, Kramer agreed in May to sell a car to the three neighborhood groups at wholesale prices and to buy $2,000 worth of tickets to the fund-raising event that he said he plans to donate to charity.
Some members of SMRG, which represents residents living next to the Kramer project, charged that the negotiations kept Mid-City from getting involved.
“Given the past history of Mid-City’s heavy involvement in all development issues in our area,” SMRG’s Rubens said, “I can only infer from their failure to take any stance at all on this matter that they are being influenced by the possibility of getting a car or other donations from the Auto Dealers Assn., of which Robert Kramer is the head.”
But Mid-City Board Members Tom Phillips and Gay Deal said that the group’s philosophy is to stay neutral on specific development projects and that it had done its part by telling residents about the Kramer project and offering to sponsor a public forum.
“Why would we be anything but neutral?” Phillips said. " . . . We’re trying to find out what the residents want and let (them) speak for themselves.”
On May 1, the Mid-City Board of Directors debated whether to dissociate themselves from SMRG on the Kramer project and finally decided to offer to conduct a neighborhood forum on the issue.
In a transcript of the meeting, board member Phillips also expressed the group’s need for funds and the car: “We need to make a real clear statement of our position to the Automobile Dealers’ Assn., not that we’re going to roll over and play pet for them, but that we’re not going to attack them either. We need to make that real clear, and if we do not make a gesture to them, and I mean right now, this week, about this . . . they’re not even going to want to talk to us about this car, and we’re not going to have any funding.”
Mid-City board member William Weingarden said the group should avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
“I think that soliciting a donation from the Auto Dealers Assn. . . . with identical timing to the filing of an application and planning staff evaluation of a major project in our community by an auto dealership creates the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said.” . . . Anyone who says that doesn’t create an apparent conflict of interest is being a Pollyanna.”