DOWNEY – With staff members calling the development “not just another shopping mall” the City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a 77-acre retail-and-office complex for the final portion of the former NASA space shuttle building site, beginning the final chapter in the reinvention of land once responsible for sending man to the moon.
The approval came over the objections of about 25 residents who were dismayed that land once home to the nation’s space shuttle program would become a retail center.
“Where in this plan have the developers created anything unique?” asked Kathy Perez, a member of the Downey Conservancy.
Downey resident Jared Head called the land “sacred ground” that would become “an over-hyped big box mall.”
In addition, the city’s weekly newspaper, The Downey Patriot, issued a pair of scathing editorials within the last week criticizing the development as unimaginative and mediocre.
“What could they have been thinking?” began writer Lawrence Christon’s editorial on the Patriot’s website. “That’s what you wonder when you hear of the latest Tierra Luna project proposal, whose imminent approval means that any claims to distinction Downey may make on the future are now as good as dead.”
Developer Industrial Realty Group and point man Bob Manarino have proposed a 1.5-million-square-foot development that would have two big-box stores, a movie theater, a hotel, restaurants, dozens of other retailers and between 300,000 and 500,000 square feet of office space, much of it for medical use.
Manarino grew up in Downey and said he recognizes site’s historical significance.
His father worked at the factory for more than 30 years, he said.
It was last operated as an aerospace factory in 1999. The site is currently Downey Studios, but that venture has been losing millions of dollars, according to reports from the city.
Manarino pointed out that many of the historical buildings along Lakewood Boulevard would be saved and converted into office buildings.
“I have a lot of passion for this property,” Manarino said. “I get it. I understand it.”
He twice invited those opposed to the site to talk to him about their ideas for the development.
Councilman Fernando Vasquez said Tierra Luna was part of the city’s evolution from an aerospace center to a medical hub, pointing out the development of the Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center and the continued operation of the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.
“These our middle class working jobs,” he said of the anticipated 1,100 jobs associated with medical office buildings at the site. “All indications suggest (the medical industry) will continue to go well.”
Guerra called the development “amazing” and said the city would continue to work with Manarino and IRG.
He said the city since 1999 has aggressively reworked the NASA site to include the sports park, the Columbia Memorial Space Center and Downey Landing.
City officials claim Tierra Luna would annually bring $4.2 million in taxes and would provide more than 3,300 full-time jobs.
A few residents and business representatives spoke up to support the project. A representative of the Downey-based Meruelo Group said the company was in favor of the development.
Emery Sipos, owner of ee Shoes in downtown Downey, also supported Manarino and IRG.
“I wouldn’t want anybody else to tell me what to build on my property,” said Sipos, who fled from communist Romania.
City Council members at the meeting tried to frame the debate as a dilemma that included either accepting the proposal or allowing IRG to build a commercial warehouse park that would generate little-to-no sales tax.
Councilman David Gafin said the council could approve the development “or we can do nothing and sit on our hands and have 1,000 jobs and zero income from this property.”
The city needed to look forward, he said.
The city’s slogan is not “our future is all we’ve got,” he said.
Several residents said the development seemed to come out of the blue and barely resembled a much denser project proposed in 2009 that included 1,500 residential units.
The most recent proposal did not come before residents until a few days before a Dec. 21 Planning Commission meeting.
“It’s not fair, and I’m not even sure it’s legal,” said Matthew Stafford, who questioned whether the drastic changes to the project required that the environmental documents be recirculated for the public.
City Manager Gilbert Livas said the city intentionally conducted only the public hearings required by law and did no additional outreach.
The speed of the approval process showed that Downey was a business friendly city.
“The fact that this project has moved so quickly is not a negative,” he said.
A few residents didn’t agree.
“I’m telling you, you’re pushing this too quick,” said Larry Latimer of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation and the Downey Historical Society. “We need to talk about this one more time, or a couple more times.”
Mayor Roger Brossmer said the city has bent over backward to save the history of the site.
“Oh you want a museum?” he said. “How about the $10 million one we’ve got?”
He said he was tired of hearing people say the city did not honor its history.
And he defended the city’s effort to put together the project.
“In this economy to pull of something like this is a home run,” he said.