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Ruling Stalls Office Project at Santa Monica Airport

Times Staff Writer

A major project at Santa Monica Airport, already the target of enormous protest from neighborhood groups and Los Angeles officials, has been stalled by a court ruling that changes the way environmental impact reports are written.

Santa Monica officials say it will take several months to draft an additional environmental impact report for the proposed 1.4-million-square-foot office complex. The new report must examine alternative uses of the property. Until then, the project is on hold.

“It will be a significant delay,” said Santa Monica’s director of community and economic development, Peggy Curran.

In a ruling hailed as a victory for environmentalists, the state Supreme Court on Dec. 1 said public agencies must disclose all potential effects of a project, including the effects of alterna tive projects, before receiving approval.

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The case involved efforts by the University of California to build a biomedical research lab in a San Francisco neighborhood.

Curran said that after examining the court ruling, she and her staff decided they should prepare a supplemental environmental impact report that evaluates in detail other possible uses of the land, such as turning it into a public park.

Officials hope the additional report will shore up the city’s legal position if opponents of the project challenge it in court. At least one homeowners’ group has already threatened to sue.

Neighborhood groups that oppose the project welcomed news of the delay but said the additional environmental report only solves part of what they see as the problem. They say the city has severely underestimated the amount of traffic and sewage that the new complex would produce.

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The project went before the city’s Planning Commission on Nov. 30 and again on Dec. 14, with about 400 attending to protest it. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, Mayor Tom Bradley and at least one Santa Monica city councilman, Herb Katz, have also come out against the project, demanding that it be scaled down.

Santa Monica planners, responding to the mounting criticism, recommended to the Planning Commission that the square footage of the proposed complex be reduced by about 21%. The project was to return to the Planning Commission on Jan. 11, but the decision to do an additional environmental study means that meeting will be called off.

Curran said that once the new report is drafted, public hearings will be scheduled before the Planning Commission and the City Council.

The $280-million project includes offices and a movie studio in eight 6-story buildings on a 37.5-acre parcel south of the airport and bordering on Los Angeles neighborhoods.

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The developer is Reliance Development Group. President Henry A. Lambert was out of the country Thursday and could not be reached for comment on the new delay. He has said he is willing to reduce the size of the project somewhat, but not by the amount some critics are demanding.

Greg Thomas, who heads a Mar Vista homeowners’ group that has galvanized opposition to the project, greeted news of the additional environmental report as “a Christmas present.”

But he cautioned that unless the city takes suggestions from the public on what kind of alternative uses should be examined, the study will be a meaningless exercise.

Several alternatives that Thomas said should be considered include a light industrial park, a smaller office complex or a hotel with public parks.

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“The question for us now is will there be public input (in the supplemental report)?” Thomas said. “If not, then it’s just a placebo to shore up their weak points.”

Curran said her staff would evaluate alternative uses that residents have already suggested in public hearings and letters to city officials.

Bill Putnam, president of the Sunset Park Associated Neighbors (SPAN), one of the principal Santa Monica homeowners’ groups that opposes the project, said the delay is positive because it may give the city time to finish a comprehensive traffic study that could be used to plan ways to ease traffic congestion.

But merely studying alternative uses of the land does not settle the problems of traffic and sewage, he warned.

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“The basic issue is how to protect the residential neighborhoods from traffic,” Putnam said.

SPAN has challenged the city’s entire environmental impact report, saying it underestimated traffic.

Curran said the city continues to stand by the full environmental report, saying its analysis of traffic and other elements are correct. The additional report that is to be done will not change or affect the rest of the environmental analysis already completed, she said.

Santa Monica officials say the project is crucial to the future financial well-being of the city, which would receive $10 million a year in lease revenue as well as $1 million for a public art fund and close to $6 million for a parks and housing fund.

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COURT RULING

Public agencies, before approving a project, must disclose all potential environmental effects as well as alternative uses for the site.

THE PROJECT

1.4 million square feet of office, retail and movie studio space on a 37.5-acre parcel south of airport. A 21% cut in square footage has been recommended by city staff.

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Project by Reliance Development Group would cost $280 million.

City would receive at least $10 million a year in lease revenue, plus $1 million for a public art fund and $6 million for a parks and housing fund.

WHAT’S NEXT

Supplemental environmental report may take several months, and must take into account court’s ruling. Public hearings will be held before final decision.

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