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The following commentary was submitted by Culver City resident Carlene Brown.
I attended the Culver City Planning Commission public hearing at on July 11. During that meeting, Commissioner John Kuechle, dragged out his arsenal of assault weapons in an attempt to demolish The Willows Community School proposal.
The Willows application calls for allowing the school to phase in a maximum of 150 students and expand school operations to abutting properties in the Hayden Industrial Tract. Two other existing private schools in the Industrial General (IG) zone would be required to present their own applications for Conditional Use Permit Modification if they chose to expand their operations. The Willows proposal provided a template for that process.
Culver City Staff recommended that the Commission adopt a resolution approving The Willows application. The Staff report included 24 letters of support from local businesses; 13 from residents and 304 from school parents.
Willows Head Lisa Rosenstein presented the application, saying, “We are excited to be back. We have crafted a 20-year plan that offers a win-win situation for our school and Culver City.”
The proposal certainly looked like a win-win to me, as various presenters outlined a highly detailed and attractive presentation that outlined three phases of a 20-year master plan. They emphasized that they took very seriously concerns raised by the Commission at a 2009 hearing. For the past two and a half years Willows has been working with Culver City Staff to address those concerns.
Willows offered to reimburse the City for its lost “opportunity cost” for the properties they hope to expand. This reimbursement would provide revenue to the City based on the difference between the tax revenues the City will receive after implementation of the school’s plan and what it might otherwise receive if the plan were not approved, thus providing an opportunity for other types of private development to occur on the adjacent properties included in the school’s plan.
Positives for the City from the Willows reimbursement plan include:
- Reimbursement payment includes several categories of potentially lost property tax reimbursement.
- Reimbursement payment also includes potentially lost sales tax, business tax, and utility users’ tax.
- The City will receive significantly more revenue after the school expands than it does today.
- Based on the analysis of HR&A (retained by the School), as reviewed and approved by the City’s staff and financial consultants, at the completion of the phased development of the School’s expansion, the school will contribute approximately $104,000 annually to the City’s General Fund.
The Willows has also agreed to participate in a variety of traffic mitigation parking management measures in the Hayden Tract. The traffic study determined that the flow of traffic would actually be improved over the course of the three phases.
According to architectural drawings, both the parking situation in the Hayden Tract and exterior building aesthetics will be greatly enhanced.
In addition, The Willows will continue to provide theater and gym space for public schools, the police department and the City’s recreation department.
“For us this is more about community value, not dollar value,” said Willows Chief Financial Officer Denise Gutches.
During public comment, Real Estate Developer Michael Hackman, who owns property in the Hayden Tract said he views Willows as a great asset to the area because it creates a sense of community. He cited the Crossroads School in Santa Monica as an example of surrounding property values increasing.
Diana Kunce, of Culver City Middle School Arts Program, spoke of the “incredible gift” Willows is to Culver City. Willows donated its theater, including lights and sound, plus access to the lunch area and a paid custodian for two full weekends to CCMS.
Following the presentation and public comment Commissioner Kuechle said, “The 2009 application was turned down due to fear of unlimited expansion. I want to make sure that schools don’t checkerboard their way through the Hayden Tract.”
“Schools always evolve and grow,” said Staff representative Joshua Williams. “As was stated in 2009, it is unreasonable to deny those opportunities. Staff believes these issues have been addressed.”
It appears to me that Kuechle’s fierce anti-nonprofit agenda drove his obsession to refuse approval.
Commissioner Linda Smith-Frost favored postponing a decision on The Willows’ application, adding she liked the proposal but that it required further fine-tuning. The Commission voted to continue the hearing till Aug 8.
How could this have happened to such an immaculately conceived project? What started out looking like a win-win looked like a lose-lose.
Gutches told me the following day, “Perhaps the biggest impact the [Planning Commission’s decision to delay the vote] will have is on our ability to finalize financing for the proposed improvements and start improving our campus.”
Living up to what their school name implies, Willows personnel have demonstrated that they can bend gracefully in the wind but do not break.
I would love to see large group of informed Culver City citizens – especially a contingent from the Downtown Neighborhood Association - showing up at City Hall on Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. to support The Willows project.