Dear Editor – Willows Waits for Planning Commission on Aug. 8

Dear Editor,

My second participation in a Public Hearing scheduled by Culver City’s Planning Commission left me in a state of “shock and awe” even more profound than what I had experienced at my first meeting—which is perhaps what Commissioner John Kuechle intended.

Upon my initiation into Planning Commission territory, Wednesday evening, June 20, Commissioner Kuechle led the charge to deny the Conditional Use Permit application from a non-profit special needs educational facility, The Help Group. (See my previous Culver City Progress blog, “Silver Lining for The Help Group and Culver City.”) I was shocked at both Kuechle and Commissioner Scott Wyant’s thinly veiled disdain toward the expansion of innovative educational facilities and their outright disregard for the value these institutions bring to our community.

That June 20th display of disdain was nothing compared to the spectacle that shocked me at The Willows Community School Public Hearing, July 11, however. Commissioner Kuechle, in particular, dragged out his arsenal of assault weapons in an attempt to demolish The Willows Community School proposal.

The Willows application called 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. Staff report included 24 letters of Willows support from local businesses, 13 letters of support from local residents, and 304 letters of support from school parents.

With that recommendation from Staff, I expected The Willows agenda item to move through just as quickly as had the first agenda item of the evening—a business enterprise application for which Staff recommended the Commission’s approval. Environmentally conscious Commissioner Anthony Pleskow raised questions about fulfillment of photovoltaic requirements. With very little questioning, Commissioner Kuechle readily agreed to allow the business construction site next to the Culver City Dog Park to exceed maximum height requirements by nearly four feet. The rationale for allowing this modification to a previously approved Administrative Site Plan Review was “economic hardship” for the contractor. The Planning Commission reached a decision in a matter of minutes, with unanimous approval for the modification.

I was unprepared for what followed as the Commission moved to the second agenda item, with Commissioner Anthony Pleskow recusing himself because two of his children had attended Willows Community School.
Lisa Rosenstein, Head of Willows, introduced their presentation on a positive note: “We are excited to be back,” she said. “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 took their turns at the microphone explaining a highly detailed and attractive Power-Point presentation that outlined three phases of a 20-year Master Plan. Willows presenters emphasized that they took very seriously concerns raised by the Commission at a 2009 hearing. For the past two and a half years Willows had been working with Culver City Staff to address those concerns.

“We believe The Willows presented an application that not only allows the School to achieve its goals, but goes further than any other school in Culver City has ever gone with making the City whole financially,” said Denise Gutches, Chief Financial Officer, when I spoke with her following the hearing.
Financial Analyst Paul J. Silvern, Architect Dwight Long, and Lawyer Mark Armbruster took turns narrating The Willows Power-Point presentation, which outlined the three phases and addressed all concerns Council had raised in 2009, especially concerns about lost revenue. Ms. Gutches occasionally stepped to the microphone to answer questions posed by Commissioners following The Willows presentation.

The Willows presenters indicated that Willows would reimburse the City for its lost “opportunity cost” for the properties they hope to expand. Presenters explained that this is a significant departure from similar school and non-profit expansions approved by the Planning Commission. “Opportunity cost” 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 opportunity for other types of private development to occur on the adjacent properties included in the School’s plan.

Positives for the City regarding The Willows reimbursement plan:
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.
City will receive significantly more revenue after the school expands than it does today.
City will receive it sooner than it might otherwise see those revenues in the absence of the School’s plan, and with more certainty.
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 shall contribute approximately $104,000 annually to the City’s General Fund.
Other positives for the City:
The Willows has 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 in the PowerPoint presentation, it is obvious that both the parking situation in the Hayden Tract and exterior building aesthetics will be greatly enhanced.
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 Denise Gutches, Chief Financial Officer. “We did not include that in our proposal as an offsetting credit.” Other presenters mentioned that neither were such benefits as out-of-town parents shopping, eating, or buying gas in Culver City calculated as offsetting credits.

During Public Comment, Michael Hackman, Real Estate Developer and owner in the Hayden Track, stated that he views Willows as a great asset to the area because it creates a sense of community, a sense that this is a safe and interesting place. “Tenants don’t want all concrete,” he said.

Hackman cited the Crossroads School in Santa Monica as an example of surrounding property values increasing. “I would never have been exposed to Culver City were it not for Willows,” he added.

Diana Kunce, of Culver City Middle School Arts Program, spoke of the “incredible gift” Willows is to Culver City. In support of an award-winning, parent-volunteer theater production with Culver City Middle School students, Willows donated their theater, including lights and sound, plus access to the lunch area and a paid custodian for two full weekends. “I say a big thank you to a private school that supports public schools!” Kunce concluded.

A parent spoke of Willows Community School taking the idea of community very seriously. The JASON Cosmetics plant manager who, like Willows, runs his business from “a service perspective,” said he “totally supports the project” and believes that “it will greatly enhance the area.”

Once Public Comment was closed, Commissioner Kuechle dragged out his arsenal and launched his attack, most of it related to fear, a word he used repeatedly. “The 2009 application was turned down due to fear of unlimited expansion,” he said. “I want to make sure that schools don’t checkerboard their way through the Hayden Tract.” If this lawyer had studied Staff’s report, he would have known those fears were irrational and unfounded.

“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.”

As questioning continued, it appeared to me that, regardless of Staff recommendations and the impeccable nature of Willows’ application, lawyer Kuechle’s fierce anti-nonprofit agenda drove his obsession to refuse approval, just as it had with The Help Group.

Commissioner Scott Wyant echoed that anti-nonprofit agenda, raising additional concerns about lost revenues. With the train stopping near the Hayden Tract, Wyant asserted that “the next best use” of properties adjacent to Willows could be retail stores in a mini-mall.

Some repeated questioning implied character attacks on Willows personnel. Willows lawyer returned to the microphone occasionally to rebut the attacks, saying on one occasion, “I do not want Willows’ character impugned any further. We want you to make a decision tonight based on our presentation here.”

As they had done more than once throughout the evening, various Staff members chimed in, urging the Commission to decide. They underscored their reasons for recommending approval of the project. One Staffer even uttered the word “hardship” in reference to the effect that either denial or postponement would create for Willows.

Commissioner Linda Smith-Frost favored postponement, however, saying that she liked both the project and presentation, but thought it needed to be fine-tuned. “You’re very close,” said Smith-Frost.

Finally, after 11pm, the Commission made its decision. Kuechle moved to continue the hearing until August 8th, followed by a second from Smith-Frost and yes votes from the remaining two commissioners: Scott Wyant and newly-sworn-in Kevin Lachoff.

Those of us who remained in the audience looked at each other in disbelief and bewilderment. I dared not try to verbalize what I felt. How could this have happened to such an immaculately conceived project? What started out looking like a win-win looked like a lose-lose.

The next day, Willows Chief Financial Officer, Denise Gutches, validated my lose-lose perception when I asked about the “hardship” imposed by the Planning Commission’s decision. “Perhaps the biggest impact the delay will have is on our ability to finalize financing for the proposed improvements and start improving our campus,” she said. “The campus improvements will not only address our program needs, but we will also address the City’s needs by providing additional on-site parking in the Hayden Tract which is severely constrained by a limited parking supply in the area.”

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 showing up at City Hall on August 8th at 7pm to support The Willows project, especially a contingent from the Downtown Neighborhood Association.

Along Jefferson Boulevard, a large Cannon sign now towers almost four feet above the maximum height requirement—evidence of the Commission’s pro-business bias. Simultaneously, the anti-nonprofit agenda of two commissioners has put on hold the Willows School’s win-win plan for themselves and Culver City.

Concern about the disparity between these two decisions made by the Planning Commission on July 11th should bring out a big crowd to hold the commission accountable on August 8th, as they continue the Public Hearing and make a final decision regarding the Willows School proposal.

Carlene Brown

The Actors' Gang

1 Comment

  1. Carlene,
    Thanks for sharing an account of the recent hearing. As a resident of Culver City for nearly a decade, and starting my 5th year as a parent at Willows Community School, this issue is of great importance to me. I’m frustrated by the operations of the Planning Committee. Please know that there are many people in Culver City who are parents of Willows children, or who are faculty, or both! Aside from its financial contributions via tax revenue reimbursement, Willows is the school I trust my children with every day, and it has been a conscientious and inspiring Culver City neighbor for nearly 20 years. As you stated, the school works as an outstanding community partner, cleaning Ballona creek, offering free educational speaker nights, and sharing its facilities with CCUSD schools, and the police and fire department.
    I hope the Planning Commission has the foresight to see that in allowing Willows to slightly expand its campus and improve its whole site, our City would continue to benefit greatly in so many ways.

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