By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
The meeting was probably the biggest and most highly anticipated public gathering in town since Rick Caruso met his future customers at Palisades Charter High School in December 2014.
But where that slickly-organized event left many feeling more optimistic about the prospects for the Palisades Village project, last week’s back-to-back community meetings may have stranded some Highlands residents feeling as frustrated over plans to build a senior center in their midst as they were when they arrived four hours earlier.
Even the town’s representatives at Pacific Palisades Community Council, and their subsidiary Land Use Committee, did not feel confident they had negotiated a truce between a Brentwood-based developer and worried Highlanders.
Both meetings were packed, with dozens of residents cramming into the Palisades Branch Library, standing against the walls and milling about outside. Twenty-two people registered to express their opinions about the eldercare facility, at a ratio of four to one against.
LUC’s mission was to draw up an advisory letter to be registered with city engineers.
However, in the words of LUC Chair Howard Robinson, who managed against some odds to keep the meeting civilized with humor and patience, they were so divided that all they could offer was a “mushy” resolution, which was then formalized at the PPCC meeting that followed.
The letter will say that the council “affirms the use (of the currently empty lot at 1525 Palisades Drive) is appropriate”—that constructing a four-story building that reaches a height of 39 feet in a zone ruled in the past as LAC1 (commercial) is permissible under city codes.
PPCC representatives said if the Highlanders had wanted to forestall this development, they could have campaigned to have the codes changed before, according to the property records, the Shram family of Brentwood bought the lot in 2013 for $3 million.
The 43,000-square-foot tract is currently assessed by the city at $3.1 million, but this would increase with the development—a bonus for city coffers.
Section 12.13 of the city planning code lists permissible businesses in a CI zone, including in paragraphs 29-31, “skilled nursing care housing,” “Alzheimer’s/dementia care housing” and an “eldercare facility”—all limited to floor space less than 100,000 square feet.
C1 could also home a church, a grocery store, a drive-through restaurant or a meat market.
But, zoning aside, the council letter will also “note” a long list of community concerns that the community would like city engineers to address with Rony Shram, the public face of the development. That is expected to happen in November.
Speakers from the recently formed Highlanders United for Good group said these include increased traffic along the often-hectic Palisades Drive, egress at the intersection with Vereda de la Montura, density, parking in an increasingly congested neighborhood, nocturnal light pollution, noise, aesthetic issues, and the health and safety of elderly residents in what they deem a relatively rural patch of the town in case of an earthquake or fire.
Organizers such as Robert T. Flick have described the project as a “grave threat” to the nature of the 5,000-strong Highlands, which was largely built in the 1970s.
There was still an unresolved issue of whether the developers had to carry out a CEQA (pronounced “sequa”) or a study under the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act. The new structure would be close to the Santa Ynez Canyon Trailhead and state parkland.
Shram laid out his vision for the eldercare facility, saying there was a desperate need for such a facility for Palisadians who otherwise faced leaving their beloved community as they aged.
He referenced state data that the Palisades is among the 10 percent “greyest” towns in California, with an exceptionally fast growing senior population.
Shram’s attorney Kevin K. McDonnell laid out the facts about the modernist-looking, 65,000-square-foot structure.
It will have 82 rooms, some to be shared, 67 subterranean parking spaces (mandatory for 35 staff members) and it will slope up to 39 feet—four feet higher than allowed elsewhere in the Palisades, but legal for this C1 site.
The developers claim it will not block views from Michael Lane, behind it, but they cannot “downsize the building due to transitional height requirements.”
Council Chair Maryam Zar and LUC member Rick Mills urged Shram to rethink the outline of the structure, perhaps reducing the height to 35 feet.
There are other suggestions in the air, including residents uniting to buy the land from the Shrams, but they have turned down such offers before.
After an 18- to 24-month build, they plan to hand the project off to professional operators. There is a suggestion they could offer local discounts to elderly Palisadians. The developer said it’s too early to consider anything about costs.
Few doubt that the need for such care is there and set to grow.
But, as council Representative-At-Large Lou Kamer, who voted against the “mushy” letter, as he believes that Palisades Drive is an unsafe location for such a facility, warned: The developers may have won the wary support of the council but they have a long road ahead of them.
And HUG, which does not represent everyone in The Highlands, also has to keep the battle fires burning to maintain challenges at the Coastal Commission.
The meeting was far less raucous than a smaller gathering held with several Highlands homeowners’ associations and their president David Dwyer on Monday, Oct. 23.
There were times when people talked over each other and grew frustrated with time limits, but despite mutterings and a single shout of “Call this democracy?” people were largely civil and, as Robinson had hoped, “acted like true Palisadians.”
Casey P. Smith contributed to this report.