Putting in place a vision to guide development in the city over the next 20 years, the Santa Monica City Council has adopted the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update of the city’s general plan.
A six-year-long process that involved the input of thousands of community members, public workshops, presentations and several recent public hearings concluded July 6, when the City Council voted unanimously to approve the LUCE and its final environmental impact report.
The plan establishes guidelines that are designed to maintain the city’s character, preserve existing neighborhoods, manage transportation systems and encourage additional housing in a sustainable manner.
City staff said the plan incorporates the community’s desire for conservation with programs that seek to limit and control growth and re-create the city’s historic settlement patterns along corridors.
Other elements of the LUCE include expanding open space, encouraging new development connected to transit, which supports walking, biking and transit modes, as well as promoting local-serving retail uses within walking distance of new and existing neighborhoods.
This is the first update of the land use and circulation plan since 1984, and officials noted its significance explaining that the city has since experienced a myriad of changes such as increased traffic congestion, commercial buildings that do not fit in well with adjacent residential neighborhoods, and a loss of affordable and workforce housing in multi-family neighborhoods.
The land use element of the plan addresses issues such as the heights and sizes of buildings and the connection of landscaping to the environment, while the circulation element is intended to reflect the community’s goals about traveling throughout Santa Monica. Following the land use element approval, the city will consider a comprehensive rewrite of the zoning ordinance, which will allow for implementation of the plan’s objectives.
Prior to the approval vote, some City Council members expressed pride at finally adopting a long-term plan for environmental, land use, economic and transportation issues.
“This LUCE is really a victory for collaborative community process,” Councilman Richard Bloom said. “We are preserving existing neighborhoods and envisioning brand new neighborhoods, which I think is very exciting.
“It’s a plan that respects and enhances sustainability and honors various constituencies throughout the city.”
During the public input process that engaged thousands of residents over the years, issues that were given high priority included preserving existing neighborhoods and the city’s unique character, managing traffic congestion, creating housing choices for all and increasing open space. Eileen Fogarty, director of the Planning and Community Development Department, which was heavily involved in the process, praised the participation of the many community members and city staff members in helping to develop the LUCE.
“It’s really fantastic,” Fogarty said of the unanimous approval. “We worked with literally thousands of people in the community and that part is so unusual about the document. What I felt was fortunate is that we had the community put in this time and effort to make a difference.”
Among the LUCE guidelines is the transformation of some industrial land areas near the planned Exposition Line light rail stops into transit-oriented neighborhoods. Encouraged under the plan are housing and employment opportunities near the future Expo Line as a way to minimize congestion.
The plan supports transforming auto-oriented boulevards into “inviting avenues” with wider sidewalks, landscaping and improved transit, while requiring new development to respect the city’s heritage with compatible designs. The LUCE also seeks to create walkable village-like areas close to homes where neighbors can interact.
In regards to open space, the plan supports increasing opportunities for recreation, gathering areas and landscaping. In addition, promoting a sustainable future is a primary value of the plan.
Following a series of seven public hearings, the Planning Commission had recommended increases of two to five feet in maximum allowable height in certain areas to accommodate greater interior floor to ceiling spaces, which the council approved. Some residents criticized the height recommendations saying that developers are attempting to ignore residents’ input just before the LUCE is to be adopted.
“The plan is a giant give-away to developers,” said resident Mike Bigelow, who opposed the last-minute revisions. “Sadly, residents are going to pay the cost in the form of higher traffic, pollution and the loss of the Santa Monica most of us love.”
City Councilman Kevin McKeown said he was “aghast” that the maximum height proposals exceed the maximum height limits of the 1984 plan, but he believes the LUCE represents more consensus than compromise. He noted that he successfully introduced language in the LUCE to explore ways to retain the Village Trailer Park, which is part of the mixed-use creative district.
“Taking a broad view of opportunities and challenges for the next 20 years or more, the LUCE is a visionary integration of land use, mobility and sustainability,” McKeown said. “The new LUCE redirects development out of established neighborhoods, better protecting residents from evictions, demolitions and relocations.”
Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor said she did not think the height changes were too substantial and they will allow for a better design that enables people to have more livability in their units. Noting that the plan represents compromise, she credited the hard work of staff in helping to create the city’s vision for the future.
“We haven’t all gotten exactly what we wanted from this but overall, I think it is a document that will serve us well,” O’Connor said.