By Vince Echavaria
With the subject of development in downtown Santa Monica at the forefront of a community meeting, several residents took the opportunity to denounce an identification for sites where height limits have not been set, arguing that size restrictions should be the same for all development projects throughout downtown.
Hundreds of community members filled the east wing of the Civic Auditorium May 6 for the meeting addressing the proposed Downtown Specific Plan, with many offering feedback, including concerns of overdevelopment and residents’ exclusion from the process.
City planners noted that the event was intended to receive input from the community on issues related to the downtown plan and the process, which launched in 2011, is still in its early stages.
“This is a work in progress; no decisions have been made for this project so far,” Francie Stefan, planning manager for the Downtown Specific Plan, told the audience.
The Downtown Specific Plan focuses on categories including preserving neighborhood character, circulation and parking, pedestrian orientation uses and the built environment. For the core of the downtown area, building height limits currently range from 76 to 84 feet and drop to 50 to 60 feet and lower heading east.
A key issue of concern for residents has been some recent project proposals along Ocean Avenue that would exceed existing height regulations.
One such project is the planned remodel of the Fairmont Miramar hotel site at Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue that would include a 21-story tower reaching 261 feet.
Two blocks south, at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean, developer Worthe Real Estate is proposing to construct a 244-foot-tall, 125-room hotel designed by renowned Santa Monica architect Frank Gehry that would also involve a 36,000-square foot museum campus. There have also been discussions of a tower reaching a height of 195 feet as one of three buildings proposed at the current Holiday Inn parcel at Ocean and Colorado Avenue.
Each of the projects have been floated on what are identified in the downtown plan as “opportunity sites,” eight locations in which applicants would be allowed to exceed height and density restrictions in exchange for providing significant community benefits such as affordable housing and open space.
Stefan explained that city staff selected the sites based on those that cover large lots, have efficient parking, are in close proximity to transit and provide public space opportunities. The city has not set standards in regards to height for those locations and is continuing to work with the community to determine such specifics, Stefan told the audience.
“We have not put forward any height or (floor area ratio) parameters for the opportunity sites,” she said.
The concept of opportunity sites was a focal point of the development debate for several speakers at the May 6 meeting. Some rejected the notion of enabling developers to surpass size regulations on select sites, while others said they would be willing to consider the exception if it meant receiving benefits for the community like the museum at the Gehry-designed parcel.
Speakers opposed to the concept said the opportunity sites would give developers “open-ended” options for their projects and they argued that all downtown developments should be held to the 84-foot height limit. Resident Eleanor Bloomenberg urged planners to ensure that the plan “deal with the totality of the area and not eliminate rules and regulations for the opportunity sites.”
While many residents expressed gratitude for the chance to live in a beach town like Santa Monica, some say the collection of large development projects will add to traffic and parking problems and change the character of the area. Lawrence Eubank, a member of a local neighborhood coalition, said the group believes that residents have not been considered stakeholders in the specific plan process and that the opportunity sites would lead to “unrestricted scale, height and density.”
Longtime Sunset Park resident and land use attorney John Murdock said that despite planners’ comments to the contrary, “the train has left the station,” in terms of having projects like the Gehry-designed hotel further along than perceived. He was not impressed at some of the features offered as community benefits for the “opportunity” projects.
“We’re not giving away the city in exchange for the things that the city is supposed to provide,” he said. “We’re not giving up a beautiful community in order to get back a few tokens from developers who are lining up to get these opportunity sites.”
Diana Gordon, co-chair of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, also argued that the downtown plan is further along than city planners are indicating and called on residents to “take back our city.” She added that the approved Land Use and Circulation Element requires a downtown plan that sets heights and densities similar to projects located in the rest of the city.
Other speakers were not as quick to slam the opportunity site concept, saying buildings should have the option of going higher when they offer amenities that could be a resource for the overall community. Resident Jerry Rubin pointed to a proposed observation deck at the Gehry-designed hotel, noting that although the developer has suggested charging a fee to visit the deck, the funds would go toward Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District schools.
City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was one of several elected officials in the audience, said he attended the meeting to hear directly from the community what they want or don’t want for the downtown skyline. He said the opportunity site projects will be handled separately from the Downtown Specific Plan through development agreements, each requiring Planning Commission hearings and City Council approval with public input.
“Height is not the sole determinant for any project, but like traffic generation, it generates genuine concern,” McKeown said of the topic that drew many residents to the meeting. “Santa Monica has managed over the years to retain a more human scale than some nearby areas. This restraint has been highly valued by many residents, who feel downtown discussions so far have not adequately weighed height.”