Initial plans for Tierra Luna project gain first approval

DOWNEY - The Planning Commission on Wednesday night unanimously approved preliminary plans for the Tierra Luna Marketplace development at Downey Studios.The project covers 77 acres and calls for two big box stores, 13 "junior anchor" retail stores, 16-screen movie theater, up to 300,000 square feet of office space, 150-room hotel, four stand-alone restaurants, a food court, gym and more. A four-lane private street -- Aviation Boulevard -- would run through the shopping center from Lakewood Boulevard to Bellflower Boulevard. The City Council is now scheduled to discuss the project on Jan. 10. Commissioners listened to nearly two hours of public testimony from residents who protested against the project, who labeled it unoriginal and an affront to the property's steep aerospace history. "This isn't just Downey history, it's mankind history," said George Redfox, president of the Downey Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to preserve Downey history. "It almost feels like we've been jipped." The Planning Commission's action redraws parcel lines and recommends the project's preliminary plans for approval to the Council. Chairman Robert Kiefer noted that the development would have proceeded no matter the Planning Commission's decision. "What we're looking at are land use issues," he said. No retailers and tenants are attached to the project yet, but if the development moves forward the city could begin soliciting lease commitments as early as March, community development director Brian Saeki said in a telephone interview Monday. "I want to make it very clear that this is a land use project at this point. There are no tenants," Saeki said. "There are a bunch of tenants interested, but no for-sure, signed, done-deal tenants." Saeki denied the city was in talks with Walmart but didn't rule out the possibility that the retail giant would serve as a retail anchor. "We're not advocating for a Walmart but when you're talking about a 90,000 square foot big box store, very few businesses fit the case," he said. In a development agreement between the city and property owner IRG, the city submitted a list of pre-approved retail stores and restaurants it would welcome at Tierra Luna Marketplace. The list includes outlets such as Whole Foods and Nordstrom. As part of the agreement, the city also agreed to pay the developer $1 million annually in exchange for a fire station and final say on tenants. The agreement goes into place if the shopping center generates $2.5 million annually in sales tax. The development's approval would spell the end of Downey Studios, which officials say has lost $13 million over the past seven years as studios increasingly take advantage of industry tax credits in other states. Downey Studios, which opened in 2004, also suffered from increasing use of computer-generated technology and a declining need for large stage space in Southern California, officials said. As mandated by federal law, the city would preserve a portion of Building 1 but everything else on the property would be razed to make room for Tierra Luna. Saeki said further preservation of the site was not economically feasible. "Downey Studios preserved the buildings there and that didn't work out, and then Tesla came in and was going to make use of the buildings and of course that didn't work out," he said. "I feel like we've lived through the preservation alternatives but the private markets show that it's not economically viable. "The city has always been very sensitive to historical preservation, especially on that site," Saeki added. "The federal government requires us to keep certain buildings on that site and at this point it's just Building 1." Resident and teacher Kathy Perez was one of several residents who criticized the city for placing the development on the agenda "on short notice" and taking up the issue four days before Christmas. Tierra Luna Marketplace is scaled down from the original 2009 plans, which included 1,500 multi-family residences. Developers scrapped the homes due to the recession. Real estate broker Arlene Garcia Hanner said redevelopment projects in Downey have helped her sell homes and she was saddened to see the residential component dropped from Tierra Luna. "I'm disappointed to see the new plans without residential units," Hanner told commissioners. "It would have given it an exciting vibe. Now it's just shops and big box stores." Most residents in attendance, however, criticized the plan for being unoriginal. "This does nothing to differentiate Downey from the surrounding areas," said resident Jared Head. "Councilmen said this wouldn't be 'just another mall.' But that's exactly what this is." City officials maintain that, aesthetically, the new project would be an upgrade over what presently exists. "[The] visual change will be an improvement over the existing metal clad industrial buildings, expansive asphalt parking lots, absent of landscaping, and the studios' back lots," Saeki and principal planner Mark Sellheim wrote in a report to the Planning Commission. The report also claims the project would create 3,286 new jobs "at build-out" and that an "economic leakage" is occuring in Downey due to a lack of big box stores such as Walmart, Target or Lowe's. "That is, because there are so few large format stores here, Downey residents must travel beyond its borders to take advantage of this retail type," the report states. "As a result, the City loses out on the benefits of large format stores: sales taxes, property taxes and a gathering place for the community." In recognition of the property's significant aerospace history, Tierra Luna Marketplace would include kiosks that "talk about history," said developer Bob Manarino. "This project will include room for maybe a farmers market and other things we simply cannot commit to today," Manarino added. Manarino, who grew up in Downey, dismissed claims the project was simply a giant shopping center. "It will be a pedestrian village," he said.

********** Published: December 22, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 36