One of Santa Monica's largest auto dealers, Robert D. Kramer, and residents are expected to take their dispute over the city's first five-story dealership to the City Council now that the Planning Commission has deadlocked on the project.
Kramer has proposed building a 60,804-square-foot Honda dealership at 18th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. The new facility would include two showrooms, eight sales offices, 20 auto service bays and three levels of parking and storage for new cars.
The proposal is the first test of a clause in the city's new land-use plan that encourages the expansion of auto dealerships, which provide 25% of the city's sales tax revenues. Although other buildings on Santa Monica Boulevard are limited to three stories, dealers are permitted to build to 54 feet, or about four stories. The fifth story on Kramer's building would be used for parking and falls within the 54-foot limit.
In June, the commission unanimously voted to ask Kramer to substantially redesign the project and requested that its staff prepare a report on the building's potential environmental impact on the adjoining neighborhood.
Monday night, Kramer reintroduced the project with some design changes and a consultant's report on the environmental impact. With four of its seven members present, the Planning Commission split 2-2 on whether to approve the project. No action was taken on whether to require additional environmental review.
Commissioner Eileen Hecht, who voted along with Commissioner Derek Shearer to deny the project, said she was "disappointed that we were given back the identical project."
Chairwoman Penny Perlman, who voted with Commissioner Margo Hebald-Heymann to approve the project, said that "while I think it is too big and too intense, the man has the right under the law to develop the project."
Kramer, viewing the commission's action as a denial, said that he will appeal to the City Council. "I'm hoping the City Council will take a more objective and realistic view toward the project," Kramer said.
But Jack Rubens, a member of Santa Monicans for Reasonable Growth, a residents group, said the City Council cannot act on the project until the Planning Commission makes a decision on whether an environmental review is necessary.
"Kramer can appeal the . . . denial of the project," Rubens said. "But whatever happens, the Planning Commission is the lead agency in determining the level of environmental review that's required."
Former Planning Director Paul Silvern, a consultant to the city, said the issue will be reviewed by City Atty. Robert M. Myers who said that the council has the power to act on the environmental issue.
From the start, both sides have said that the matter would eventually be appealed to the City Council.
Two council members emphasized the importance of the dealerships. "They provide a lot of revenue for the city's services," Councilman David G. Epstein said. "If we lost them, we'd be in financial trouble."
Mayor Christine E. Reed expressed concern that Kramer's experience might discourage other dealers. "In terms of how auto dealers look at it, if this one is so horrible, there may be no others," she said.
Kramer said the final resolution will send "a signal to other dealers about whether or not the city is really interested in encouraging auto dealerships."
More than 20 residents expressed concerns Monday about the cumulative impact of the new projects on neighborhoods along Santa Monica Boulevard, which is lined with auto dealerships.
The residents complained about noise from loudspeakers at existing dealerships, as well as employees test-driving cars and truckers unloading autos in the middle of the street, a practice that is illegal. They said that customers waiting for service at the new dealership would clog 18th Street and 18th Court and reduce parking in the area.
Resident John Belsher complained that Kramer did not contact the neighborhood in developing the environmental report. "If I were a planning commissioner, I would refuse to act on the project until we got some real answers," he said.
Kramer said that he hopes to work out differences with the residents, although he has no plans to meet with them immediately. Kramer said some of the residents' concerns are citywide and should not have an impact on a single project.
"If the citizens bring (their concerns) to their attention, I think the dealers would be more than happy to sit down and talk about those things," Kramer said.
Kramer said that dealers have been unloading cars in the middle of the street since 1934, but that there have never been any problems before. He said, however, that he has agreed not to allow street unloading at his proposed dealership.