A struggle between Los Angeles and Culver City over the plans for the massive Marina Place regional shopping center has escalated into a full-scale battle, with the California Coastal Commission joining the fray.
Although the Marina Place property at the western edge of Culver City lies just outside the state's coastal zone, the commission last week agreed to file a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit against the $159-million project.
The commission, meeting in nearby Marina del Rey, acted after Venice Town Council attorney Debra L. Bowen warned that the 1-million-square-foot mall, half again as large as the Westside Pavilion, would choke the Venice area with traffic and restrict public access to the beach.
The Venice Town Council and the city of Los Angeles are expected to go to court soon to challenge Culver City's recent approval of the project.
The Mediterranean-style mall, with two major department stores, 150 other shops, restaurants and a six-screen movie theater, will generate an estimated 31,000 vehicle trips on a typical weekday and 40,030 on Saturdays. The traffic volumes are estimated to be 42% greater during the Christmas shopping season.
An environmental impact report predicts that, despite extensive roadway and signal improvements, the addition of Marina Place traffic to the area's already congested streets would clog intersections as far away as Santa Monica and damage air quality in the vicinity of the mall.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter welcomed the coastal commission's involvement. "It is a sign they are taking seriously their responsibility to protect coastal access," she said.
Galanter said the shopping center will worsen traffic congestion along crowded Lincoln Boulevard, damage the surrounding neighborhood and, ultimately, create a competition between shoppers and beach visitors.
"Marina Place means the intersection of Lincoln and Washington (boulevards) will be virtually gridlocked," Galanter said. "That means anyone trying to go up and down the coast route along Lincoln or west to the beach is going to have a very difficult time, far more difficult than now."
The Culver City Council voted 3 to 2 in favor of the project on March 6, even though some of its environmental effects could not be corrected.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires that all harmful environmental effects of large developments be offset or corrected. But the law also provides an escape hatch, allowing local governments to declare that overriding considerations exist to justify proceeding with development despite adverse environmental results. In Culver City's case, the council said the overriding considerations included Marina Place's economic and other benefits, including enhancing the city's image.
A sense of urgency surrounds the project these days. One of the three council members supporting it will retire next month, and a second member of the pro-mall majority is up for reelection on April 10.
Aware that the election could give the council an anti-mall majority, the Marina Place developers and their allies on the council are scrambling to guarantee the project a legal right to proceed. Tomorrow night, the council is expected to approve a formal development agreement with the developers, Prudential Insurance Co. and Melvin Simon Associates.
Galanter accused the Culver City Council of rushing to judgment. "What they are trying to do is make sure the citizens of Culver City will not have an opportunity to determine the future of that property," she said in an interview Thursday.
Culver City Mayor Jozelle Smith, a supporter of the project, acknowledged in an interview that it is "fairly obvious" that Culver City is rushing to give final approvals to Marina Place before next month's election. "I'm prepared to help battle it to the wire," she said.
Smith said it would be "a real possible blow to the project" if slow-growth forces win control of the council. Another threat to Marina Place on the same ballot is a citizens initiative that would limit the height of buildings in commercial areas, including the 18.3-acre Marina Place site along Washington Boulevard, just east of Lincoln.
The mayor said she was very disappointed that the Coastal Commission agreed to enter the legal fight over the mall by filing a brief. But Smith said she does not believe that the opponents' argument about coastal access will stand up in court.
Smith also said it was puzzling that the Coastal Commission is choosing to enter the fray over development in the Venice-Marina area at this point, after declining to challenge many other recent development projects closer to the ocean. "Where was the Coastal Commission when the Marina Marketplace (in Los Angeles) was put up and many other developments much more closely situated to the coast?" she asked.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Steven Kaufmann, representing the Coastal Commission, said the friend-of-the-court brief will deal with "the limited question of whether Culver City met the requirements in the Coastal Act."
Joe Pannone, special counsel to Culver City, said the law requires a city outside the coastal zone to consider whether a development will have a direct effect on coastal resources.
Pannone said Culver City had "taken into consideration everything that needed to be taken into consideration." He said the city analyzed the project's possible effects and mitigated them to the maximum extent possible.
He said the city's rapid-fire actions to approve the Marina Place project, adopt the statement of overriding consideration and consider a development agreement within a two-week period are "not out of the ordinary."
Prudential has promised Culver City $2.75 million for low- and moderate-income housing, water conservation, and a child-care center, if the development agreement is approved. Altogether, Pannone said Marina Place is expected to contribute $15 million in revenue to the city over a 10-year period.