Last Friday, following nearly five years of work, the full Expo Line route to Santa Monica opened to throngs of eager passengers.  As if on cue, a mixed-use development inspired by the $2.5-billion light rail line is poised to go before the Los Angeles City Planning Commission later this week.

The proposed Martin Expo Town Center would rise at the northwest corner of Olympic Boulevard and Bundy Drive, replacing the longtime Martin Cadillac dealership.  The project, which would be located slightly north of the elevated Expo/Bundy Station, is slated to include commercial office space, rental apartments and pedestrian-oriented shops and restaurants.

To learn more about what is planned, we spoke with with Dan Martin (DM), owner of the Martin Automotive Group, and Phil Simmons (PS), project manager for the development.

To start things off, what does the Martin Expo Town Center entail?

PS: The project consists of 516 rental apartments, including 192 studio units, 181 one-bedroom units, 137 two-bedroom units and 6 three-bedroom units.  There will be 99,000 square feet of neighborhood-serving retail space throughout the development, as well as 200,000 square feet of creative office space.

What type of tenants are you marketing the office space toward?

PS: Our target here is primarily the high-tech, Silicon Beach-type demographic for both the apartments and the office space.  The type of demand in this area influences this, with companies like Riot Games coming in next door, but we are also motivated by another concern: traffic.  Traffic is terrible in West L.A.  We are targeting both the housing and the office space for a high-tech demographic because that segment of the population has two characteristics that are critical to our goals.  First, they are more receptive to transit use, meaning that they are more likely to be willing to give up their cars and use the train and other alternate modes of transportation.  Second, when they do drive, they tend to be off-peak travelers, meaning they tend to get on the road later and come back home later.

There are ten's of thousands of workers within a short radius of this location.  By designing the project to provide what this group prefers, we can take some existing traffic off the road.

What will happen to the existing Cadillac dealership?

DM: The Cadillac dealership will retain its showroom here, while the rest of the operation relocates elsewhere.  We are looking to get approvals first before announcing anything.  I know a lot of people have a personal connection ot this site through its history as a car dealership.

PS: Everyone around here knows the Martins because of this dealership.  It's really helped us in the community outreach process, because they know it's a family-owned business that has been integrated into the community for years.  The Martins care about making this project the best that it can be.  Since they aren't a big developer, people have been more trusting, as the Martins have always been a part of the community.

Where are we now, in terms of the outreach process?

PS: Our final environmental impact report went out in January.  We've now gone through two staff hearings, when there is normally just one.  We had one Downtown, and then held a second to make sure that everyone on the Westside would have an opportunity to attend.  We have also held four additional voluntary community outreach meetings to make sure that community stakeholders could be heard.

There's been a lot of passionate, thoughtful support from the community, with less opposition than any other major project I've worked on.  By the time we got to the hearings, everyone who had a viable suggestions had already been heard or had their suggestions incorporated into the project.  It's been through many changes.

DM: The reason for that is that we spent the first two years of the project doing a lot of community outreach.  The first year was spent just talking to people, finding out what they want to see, what their concerns are, and what the area needs. 

PS: Of more than 1,600 community comments that were submitted, most were incorporated into the development.  For example, the original plan was for a project that was 50% larger, with 6.0 FAR and entirely commercial.  The community felt that was too intensive, despite the adjacent transit stop.  So one of the earliest changes was a 1/3 reduction in the size of the development.

Another big ticket item: the public plaza was originally elevated above the street.  The thinking was that it would get people off the street, away from the noise and fumes of traffic.  However, after discussions with the local council office, city planners and the community, it became clear that the preference was for activating the corner for pedestrian and bike access, so we dropped the podium deck to street level.

That must have forced you to make a lot of adjustments to the parking garage.

PS: Parking has been a big issue of discussion.  We could have asked for a reduction, but instead opted for full code, plus 183 extra spaces.  That's 1,548 total spaces, all underground.  It raises the budget, but makes the project nicer looking and gives the community what they want.

There has been a lot of discussion regarding parking, or a lack thereof, at the new Expo Line stations.  Is that something the project will attempt to address?

PS: We are decoupling the parking from the residential units, so while it won't be assigned transit parking, our extra parking will be accessible to people who want to use the train station.

What are the next steps from here?

PS: Our next hearing is at the City Planning Commission on May 26.  Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we should go to the City Council PLUM Committee afterwards, then within a week or so to the full Council.  We hope to be through the entire process by late June or early July.

After approval, it should be approximately one year to get through construction plans and plan check.  We anticipate breaking ground approximatley 12 months from now.

Anything else that you might like to mention?

PS: We've gotten a lot of support letters from unusual places.  These are people integrated into the community, who are thoughtful and aware.  The Council office has been clear from the beginning: we will support you as long as this is a state-of-the-art transit-oriented devleopment that sets the bar for the whole city.

DM: Two transit-oriented academics from USC and Cal Poly did independent evaluations, and say that the project meets the aspects of good transit-oriented development.

PS: We're thinking about a PR campaign called "Development Done Right."  I want to take this to ULI as a case study when this is all done to prove that yes, major projects can be done collaboratively.  It doesn't have to be adversarial between the developer and the community.