Judge Calls Impact Study for Marina Place Flawed

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has tentatively concluded that the environmental impact report on the Marina Place shopping mall is flawed, which could spell trouble for the embattled project in Culver City.

In an eight-page order issued Tuesday, Judge John Zebrowski said the environmental report on the shopping center failed to address the cumulative impact of massive Westside development on air quality. The California Environmental Quality Act requires that reports discuss such significant cumulative effects, he said.

Although the document noted that Marina Place was just one of 70 large residential and commercial projects planned on or near the coast from Santa Monica to Westchester, it lacked an analysis of the air pollution that would result from all this development, the judge said.

Zebrowski stopped short of overturning Culver City's approval of the $160-million retail complex, as the city of Los Angeles and the Venice Town Council had sought in a lawsuit. Instead, he invited all parties to file further legal arguments and set another court hearing for Oct. 15.

The suit claims that Culver City violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not adequately assessing the mall's impact on traffic congestion and air quality, particularly in the Los Angeles neighborhoods that surround the project on three sides. The judge could direct Culver City to launch a new environmental report and reapprove the development.

In his order, Zebrowski expressed concern about one city approving a project that adversely affects its neighbors.

"The city of Culver City would gain the benefit of $15 million (over 10 years) for the city's coffers, while the burdens of the project would largely be borne by citizens of West Los Angeles in the immediate area and by citizens of areas to the east along the path of prevailing winds," he wrote.

With such stakes, Culver City might have approved the 1-million-square-foot mall even with a more extensive environmental report, Zebrowski said. "Given the uniquely gerrymandered outlines of municipal boundaries in the area and the resulting opportunity for one municipality to benefit at another's cost, a change in outcome due to a more complete EIR is probably not to be expected," he said.

Marina Place, located at the tip of a skinny two-mile finger of Culver City that is surrounded by Los Angeles neighborhoods, is to contain two department stores, 150 other shops, restaurants, movie theaters and parking for more than 4,600 cars. The environmental report estimates that mall traffic will generate each day almost two tons of carbon monoxide, between 300 and 400 pounds of reactive organic gases and 700 pounds of nitrogen oxide to be released into the air, the judge noted.

In addition, he observed, traffic in the area is expected to grow by 3% annually even if Marina Place and 69 other developments are not built.

"With a remarkable frankness the EIR states an expected progression to virtual gridlock at numerous intersections," he wrote. "This calculates to an increase in traffic in the next 10 years of well over 30% even without the large projects."

If all of the projects were built, Zebrowski said, they would add another 500,000 car trips daily to the "already heavy existing load" on streets in the area.

However, the Marina Place document seems to contain no analysis of the consequences, which could be worse air quality in the area near the mall as well as more smog downwind in eastern Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, Zebrowski said.

The judge said the cumulative effect of such development on air quality "seems to be the type of information required to be included in an EIR."

Environmental impact reports, he added, are intended to inform the decision makers and "inform the citizenry of the environmental consequences of the actions that political leaders are proposing."

Marina Place opponents said the order, which followed a 90-minute court hearing last week, was a good sign. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said "it opens the door for serious consideration of concerns that L.A. raised."

The Washington and Lincoln boulevards intersection next to the mall is already loaded with airport, beach and residential traffic, she said. "Everything is happening at that intersection, and it's all happening very slowly, so there are a lot of air pollution concerns there."

"Culver City was telling us it was slam-dunk, no discussion was possible, the information was all there (in the environmental report)," Galanter said.

But Joseph Pannone, special counsel to Culver City, said "there's no question the EIR covers cumulative impacts."

The judge "must have some question whether there's an insufficiency there . . . or it'd be an order invalidating the EIR," Pannone said.

Officials of Marina Place's joint developers, Prudential Insurance Co. of America and Melvin Simon & Associates, did not return phone calls.

Debra Bowen, attorney for the Venice Town Council neighborhood organization, said she was delighted with the judge's order but "I won't count my chickens" before a final ruling."

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