The Culver City Council and the developers of Marina Place reached a historic agreement this week designed to protect the embattled regional shopping mall from any shift in the political winds that might occur as a result of next month's city election.
After a brief public hearing, the council on Monday approved the first development agreement in the city's history by the same 3-2 margin that marked a rapid-fire series of votes on the $159-million project in the past two weeks.
The lengthy agreement was sought by developers, Prudential Insurance Co. and Melvin Simon & Associates, to establish a legal right to build the Mediterranean-style mall on 18 acres at the western end of the city.
Culver City Mayor Jozelle Smith said the agreement was intended to give the developers some assurance that they would be able to go ahead and build the project.
But despite of the council's action, construction of the 1-million-square-foot mall on a former industrial site along Washington Boulevard just east of Lincoln Boulevard is not guaranteed.
The site is nearly surrounded by Los Angeles neighborhoods at the tip of a slim, two-mile-long finger of Culver City, prompting Los Angeles officials to complain that their city will have to bear the brunt of the traffic the mall generates.
The city of Los Angeles and the Venice Town Council have threatened to file suit to stop the project because of concern that it will increase air pollution and restrict public access to the coast by snarling traffic in the Venice-Marina del Rey area. The California Coastal Commission last week agreed to enter the battle with a friend-of-the-court brief on the coastal access issue.
Culver City officials refused to discuss Marina Place during what Smith called a "frosty and chilly" half-hour meeting last Friday at Los Angeles City Hall.
When Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley raised the issue of the shopping mall, Smith told him the project was not negotiable. The session ended with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter telling Smith: "See you in court."
Of more immediate concern to Culver City officials and the developers, however, is the April 10 Culver City election. If voters elect another slow-growth council member opposed to the project or if they approve a residents' initiative limiting commercial building heights, Marina Place could face new hurdles.
The agreement reached Monday was designed to make the city's approval of the project irrevocable for at least eight years and to thwart any efforts to overturn or modify it. Opponents of the mall harshly criticized the 11th-hour tactics.
Robin Turner, a sponsor of the residents measure, questioned the "ethics of considering (the agreements) three weeks before the election" that could change city rules governing Marina Place.
And Galanter, in a letter read to the council, said the Culver City Council was trying to "lock into place your ill-advised shopping center even though your own voters are only weeks away from an election in which they may vote to alter the project."
"This development agreement is nothing less than a total subversion of the democratic initiative process," Galanter wrote.
Former Culver City Atty. Joe Pannone, now special counsel to Culver City, told reporters after Monday's meeting that it was unclear whether a newly elected City Council would have the authority next month to change the development agreement.
The 40-page pact is designed to give the developers protection from any changes in zoning or other city requirements during the next eight years. In return, the developers promise to start construction within 3 1/2 years and complete work three years after that. That deadline, however, could be extended for a variety of reasons, including litigation, labor problems, adverse changes in the economy, fire, earthquakes, floods or other natural disasters.
Councilman Jim Boulgarides, a Marina Place opponent, complained that "this agreement . . . protects the developer in every way they could be protected. . . . It seems very one-sided to me."
Councilman Steven Gourley, another opponent, protested that "the city didn't ask for this agreement; the developer asked for this agreement."
Gourley, an attorney, suggested numerous changes to protect the city, including elimination of a $50,000 limit on the developers' share of the city's legal fees. "If these things get hot and heavy," Gourley said, "$50,000 goes by real fast."
Over the developers' objections, the council required the developers to pay all of the city's costs of defending the Marina Place project.
The council majority clearly favored the development, which is seen as enhancing Culver City's image and finances. The shopping center is to include a Bullock's and a Nordstrom store, 150 other shops, restaurants, a six-screen movie theater and a parking structure with spaces for 4,742 cars.
Michael Marr, representing Melvin Simon & Associates, argued that 60 months was a more reasonable starting time because of potential interest rate uncertainties or changes in the department store business. "My concern is not so much what the knowns are but the unknowns," he said.
Marr also said the developers will not proceed with construction as long as litigation threatens the project, because the legal cloud would "restrict our ability to get financing."
Although the project's environmental impact cannot be offset fully, the Culver City Council last week approved a statement of overriding consideration that cites economic and other benefits of the mall.
"We're expecting a certain cash flow from our cash cow here," Alexander said during a later discussion of a separate revenue agreement. In that pact, the developers agreed to make payments to the city of $1.7 million to $2.7 million annually over 10 years.
A separate incentive for the city is contained in the development agreement reached Monday. It calls for the developers to provide $2.5 million for construction elsewhere in the city of housing for the elderly and for people of low and moderate income, and for water-conservation devices for homes and public facilities in the city. The developers are to contribute $250,000 more for city child care facilities and programs.
The council agreed that half of the fees are to be paid when the developer gets a building permit, and the rest to be paid when the mall is ready for occupancy.