Controversial Tierra Luna project OK'd by city council

DOWNEY ‚àí Despite objections from several residents in attendance, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the 77-acre Tierra Luna Marketplace development, granting the city a new 1.5 million-square-foot retail and office center while simultaneously cementing Downey's aerospace legacy as past."This is something significant, there's nothing going on like this in Southern California or the state," said City Manager Gilbert Livas who confirmed that city staff had been trying to court manufacturing and technology companies for the site. "That option is no longer feasible. If we owned the property, we could just sit on it, but we don't. We can't just cut our way out of deficit - we have to grow our way out." Likewise, Brian Saeki, the city's director of community development, lauded the forthcoming project, which will include a pedestrian paseo he likened unto Rancho Cucamonga's Victoria Gardens or the Santa Monica Promenade. "What I hear most from the community is 'we have no place to go at night,'" Saeki said. "This village concept will include a bar, movie theater, restaurants and outside in a walk-able space. This is so much more than a shopping mall." The Tierra Luna Marketplace, scaled down from the original 2009 plans, calls for two big box stores, 13 "junior anchor" retail stores, a 16-screen movie theater, up to 300,000 square feet of office and medical space, a 150-room hotel, four stand-alone restaurants, a food court, gym and more. In the adopted development agreement between the city and property owner Industrial Realty Group, the city submitted a list of pre-approved retail stores and restaurants it would accept at Tierra Luna Marketplace. The lengthy list includes outlets such as Yard House, Trader Joe's, 24 Hour Fitness, T.J. Maxx, Barnes & Noble, and Lowe's. As part of the agreement, the city also agreed to pay the developer $1 million annually for 20 years if the shopping center generates $2.5 million in sales tax annually. The developer will be required to construct a fire station for the city and spend a minimum of $235 per square foot during the construction of Tierra Luna to insure a quality development, according to city officials. Tierra Luna, however, will spell the end of Downey Studios, which officials say lost $13 million over the past seven years, suffering from increasing use of computer-generated technology and a declining need for large stage space in Southern California. Nonetheless, council members praised the Tierra Luna proposal, which they say will create 3,300 new local jobs and generate $4.2 million in tax revenues for the city every year. "This is a major accomplishment bringing a project like this, in this time and era ‚àí it's amazing," said Councilman Luis Marquez. "Residents want quality projects like this with restaurants and entertainment. We always hear residents saying 'we have to go to Cerritos or Long Beach.' I'm extremely proud we had the chance to bring this together." Councilman Fernando Vasquez said Tierra Luna represented the need for realistic economics as the city sheds its aerospace history for a future in the medical industry with Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, Downey Regional Medical Center, and the new Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. "These are middle class working jobs," Vasquez said defending the nearly 1,100 jobs associated with Tierra Luna. Nearly 25 residents, however, spoke out against the development, calling it "unoriginal" and "short-sighted." "We are fighting to keep Downey's soul," said Downey native Sean Teegarden. "This might make a part of the city look shiny and new, but newer doesn't mean better." "The site deserves more than just another marketplace ‚àí this falls short," added Jerry Blackburn, president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation. "Real vision means stepping outside of the box." Larry Latimer, vice president of the Downey Historical Society, pleaded with council members to slow the process in order to allow more public input. "You have an invested obligation to do something important over there," Latimer said. "You're pushing this too quick. Little is devoted to the history of the site. I feel there needs to be a little more research into what the community needs." Councilman Mario Guerra defended the project, applauding city staff for overseeing such an expansive development. "This council is pro-business, pro-development. This is an aggressive project that creates jobs," Guerra said. "Staff did a great job - this is not settling." Mayor Pro Tem David Gafin said the council had a choice to either change the site's specific plan and add these 3,300 jobs or sitting on its hands and have only a few hundred jobs down the road with nearly no tax revenue to the city. "We all have history on that site if you were raised in Downey," said Gafin. "But it's private property. The developer wants something there, but it has to be economically feasible. We need to look towards our future, we can't live in the past. Our logo says 'future unlimited' not 'all we've got is history.'" IRG developer Bob Manarino, who grew up in Downey, pushed back at the criticisms and called on both sides to work together on the project. "My dad worked on the site for 35 years during the Apollo space program ‚àí I plan to do the right thing," said Manarino who pledged to incorporate Downey's aerospace history into the Tierra Luna development. "I commend everyone that spoke tonight and I want to continue to talk about this. I'm willing to meet with anyone." Mayor Roger Brossmer passionately refuted many of the public's comments including those accusing the City Council of forgetting the city's aerospace history. "Are you serious? We have a $10 million learning center filled with kids every single day. We're going to honor the history," Brossmer said. "In this economy, this is a homerun. This is the beginning, we've put our money where our mouth is and I'm nothing but excited about it." As mandated by federal law, the city will preserve a portion of Building 1, designed by famed architect Gordan Kaufmann to house the offices of early industrialist E. M. Smith and later NASA's Apollo space program, but everything else on the property will soon be razed to make room for Tierra Luna. No retailers and tenants are officially attached to the project yet, but according to Saeki, the city could begin soliciting lease commitments as early as March.

********** Published: January 12, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 39