Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time for City Council to hold developers accountable - Sister Sue Miller and her phantom parking garage

It's no secret that real estate developers and the local land use attorneys who enable them are chomping at the bit to find ways to extract revenue from our humble, 8-square-mile beachfront urban utopia. City Hall's plan to manage growth (read: keep the barbarians at the gate) for the next few decades, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), casts our City Council in the role of protector of our quality of life and defender of the most vulnerable Santa Monicans — mainly through the negotiation and enforcement of development agreements.

A compliance review of the controversial Saint John's Health Center development agreement was on the council agenda last night. The outcome of the discussion was not known by the time this column went to print, but it's safe to say that Sister Sue Miller and the order of gangster nuns from Leavenworth, Kan. who are actually in charge at Saint John's, have not acted in good faith and complied with the terms of their agreement as they are trying to weasel out of building hundreds of much-needed parking spaces in Mid-City.

If the council doesn't put a stop to that request, they will have sent the message to all real estate developers that our elected representatives are weak and that our city is available to be exploited.

If you ask anyone who knows, he or she will tell you that real estate developers don't mess around when it comes to development agreements; so when a review is required, they're typically pretty run of the mill. Since there is so much to lose, no experienced developer would risk even the appearance of non-compliance. Needless to say, Sister Sue is not an experienced developer.

Part of the development agreement that she and her local attorneys, Harding, Larmore, Kutcher, and Kozal, negotiated with our city included the construction of a 422-space North Subterranean Parking Garage (NSPG), which was supposed to mitigate the negative effect of the estimated 29,000 new daily car trips associated with Saint John's. Absent that additional parking capacity, everyone understood the stress of those trips would fall squarely on the hospital's neighbors — and nobody wanted that.

Sister Sue's agreement required her to produce three specific documents relating to the NSPG: the parking structure design analysis, the parking lot layout and specifications, and the parking operations plan. In other words, she was supposed to have designed the garage, analyzed that design, laid out that design, and come up with a plan for how this 400-plus-space garage was going to operate underneath the new Saint John's — and she was supposed to have given all of that information to City Hall. Most importantly, after submitting the design, layout, and specs for the NSPG, the specific operations plan was supposed to have been submitted to and approved by the planning director before construction could begin on the inpatient suites. Those suites became the Keck Center, now completed, despite the fact that none of the three parking garage-related documents have ever been provided to City Hall — and the planning director has not approved the parking operations plan as required.

If you're wondering how it could be possible for Sister Sue to get away with this for almost 15 years, you're in good company. I wondered the same thing. So I looked up the state and local laws dealing with development agreements, and what I discovered blew my mind.

It turns out that California law focuses on the consumer's and the public's need for effective, low-cost utilization of resources more than the developer's desire for personal enrichment. Along those lines, the state requires both our Planning Department and our City Council to go out of their way to keep us informed. For example, in 2007 when Sister Sue applied for permission to screw us over and not build the garage as promised, both the Planning Department and the City Council were supposed to have held public hearings on the application. They were also supposed to have advertised those hearings in a newspaper and mailed notice of the hearings to people who own property near the hospital. I have found no record of any of that taking place.

There is also no record of our City Council conducting an annual review of the Saint John's development agreement, as required by California law and the Santa Monica Municipal Code. It seems as though the council has been content to let the Planning Department deal with Sister Sue and her local lawyers; and the private sector guys have been kicking our public sector workers in the pants. Fast-forward a few years, and Sister Sue has built a brand-spanking-new hospital where her underground parking garage is supposed to be and nobody in city government saw it happening.

On May 11, it was determined that City Hall was "working to" bring Saint John's into compliance with its development agreement, and it was determined that Saint John's was "in substantial compliance." The combination of the two statements clearly indicates that as of the time this column went to print, the hospital is not in compliance with its development agreement. If after all of this time our City Council isn't willing to stand up and make this developer comply, then these individuals can't be counted on to stand up to any developer under circumstances ever, and Sister Sue wins.


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