Residocracy and Santa Monica Forward do battle over a city plan to change building height and housing density restrictions

By Bonnie Eslinger

A city-commissioned artist’s rendering imagines a revitalized Wilshire Boulevard  that would have taller buildings and pedestrian enhancements Image: City of Santa Monica

A city-commissioned artist’s rendering imagines a revitalized Wilshire Boulevard
that would have taller buildings and pedestrian enhancements
Image: City of Santa Monica

Two Santa Monica political action groups and a divided city council went head-to-head last week in a 13-hour tug of war over impending changes to a local ordinance that governs building height, housing density and other big-picture development decisions.

At the conclusion of two marathon public meetings on April 14 and 15, a slight majority of Santa Monica City Council members threw their weight behind zoning code changes that would reduce the possibility of taller developments along some major commercial thoroughfares.

Some slow-growth advocates, however, are considering going to the voters with a referendum to lock in even tighter restrictions.

In the crosshairs is a draft Zoning Ordinance Update crafted to implement a controversial planning document known as the LUCE, or Land Use and Circulation Element, which was designed to direct land-use decisions in Santa Monica — including building heights and density — for the next 20 years.

LUCE was approved in July 2010 by a different, less slow-growth city council majority after six years of public discussion.

The Zoning Ordinance Update to LUCE is scheduled to go before the council members for an official vote on May 5.

The 13 hours of public testimony and council discussion that spanned two nights last week focused on vetting still-standing community concerns related to the zoning ordinance and the nearly five-year-old LUCE.

Residocracy — the group of residents that brought last year’s referendum to kill the 765,000-square-foot mixed-use development known as the Hines project — has opposed Zoning Ordinance Update changes with a rallying cry of “Too Tall, Too Big, Too Much.”

Dozens of the Residocracy members were among the 130-plus people who signed up to speak during the first half of last week’s council meeting. The group also delivered 1,135 signatures on an electronic petition demanding changes to height and density provisions of the zoning ordinance and LUCE — or else face another voter referendum.

Laura Wilson-Hausle, a Residocracy organizer, said Monday that, while she couldn’t officially speak for the group, the range of changes the council has expressed willingness to make “doesn’t go far enough” to address Residocracy’s concerns about overdevelopment in Santa Monica.

The May vote will determine the group’s next steps, she said.

“We’re prepared to do [a referendum] if we have to,” Wilson-Hausle said. “We’ve been gearing up for it for a long time.”

In an email Monday, Mayor Kevin McKeown said that while he supports the voters’ right to the referendum, “passing a zoning ordinance that the majority of Santa Monicans will support” is his focus.

“The City Council has already signaled massive changes to the zoning ordinance in response to community input and will finalize those changes when the actual code comes to us for review,” McKeown wrote.

During the several hours of public comment, there were many speakers who expressed support for the LUCE vision of allowing taller buildings and more density in commercial areas of the city — with increased access to public transportation access — in exchange for developer-funded public benefits such as affordable housing, open space and area beautification.

These included members of Santa Monica Forward, a new city political coalition announced last month under the banner of “a diverse, progressive, sustainable and equitable Santa Monica.”

Current Santa Monica City Council members Pam O’Connor, Gleam Davis and Terry O’ Day are among Santa Monica Forward’s founders, as is former Mayor Judy Abdo.

Barbara Filet, a Pico neighborhood resident who affiliates with Santa Monica Forward, said increasing the city’s housing supply will help make living in Santa Monica more affordable, and putting that housing near public transit routes makes good ecological sense.

Opponents to the LUCE “have theirs and want to keep Santa Monica frozen in time,” Filet told the council.

Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce President Laurel Rosen said council members “shouldn’t be second-guessing” decisions already made on the LUCE.

“Santa Monica needs more workforce housing,” Rosen said.

Others said they understand the need for more housing but want to keep large new developments from impacting quality of life.

Amy Aukstikalnis is chair of Santa Monica’s Northeast Neighbors group, which opposes a component of the LUCE called “Tier 3” that would allow for buildings up to 55 feet tall along parts of Wilshire Boulevard.

“We support affordable housing, but affordable housing — like all housing — needs to be in scale with the neighborhood,” Aukstikalnis said.

During the April 15 meeting—which dragged on until nearly 2 a.m. — council members painstakingly examined about
40 separate issues that had become points of public concern, taking straw polls and directing staff to come back with a reworked Zoning Ordinance Update and possible amendments for the overall LUCE.

Among notable decisions, the council voted 4-3 — with Santa Monica Forward founders O’Connor, Davis and O’Day dissenting — to eliminate Tier 3 development along the city’s mixed-use boulevards, with the exception of some near the downtown area.

A Tier 3 provision was also made for projects that contain 100% affordable housing and for properties with a designated landmark or “structure of merit.”

O’Connor and Davis argued that keeping the possibility of larger mixed-use developments with ground-floor retail and market-rate housing would give the city leverage to convince developers to fund affordable housing and other public benefit projects in exchange for building rights.

The high cost of housing in Santa Monica has made it a city that “suffers from affluenza,” said Davis, who also asserted that, if not built on the main thoroughfares, demand for new housing would push redevelopment into the existing neighborhoods.

“It’s a balloon. We need to give that development pressure a place to go,” Davis said.

Santa Monica’s population is estimated to increase by 5,100 residents to a total of 55,740 by 2030, according to city planning staff projections in the LUCE.

McKeown stated Monday that conversations with city staff have assured him that the Tier 3 “higher level of development is not needed” to meet the city’s needs.

Circumstances have changed since the LUCE was passed in 2010 — including cancellation of plans to bring a subway down Wilshire — so it’s “only prudent to rethink” some of its policies, he asserted.

“We may make further changes to refine and increase neighborhood protections,” he added.