The Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the city’s general plan in 2010. The LUCE then won statewide, regional and local awards, including “Outstanding Comprehensive Planning Award, Small Jurisdiction” from the California and Los Angeles divisions of the American Planning Association (APA), the “Compass Blueprint Sustained Leadership Award” from the Southern California Association of Government, and the David Cameron Award from the Santa Monica Conservancy.
The plan was also popular locally across the development-politics board. Not coincidentally, the Planning Director who oversaw the development of the LUCE, Eileen Fogarty, departed Santa Monica almost universally admired. Fogarty was especially lauded, again across the board, for her untiring efforts to involve residents in the LUCE process, especially residents who did not often participate in local affairs.
Why the awards and the popularity? The LUCE had “that vision thing.” The APA awards, for example, are intended to recognize “originality, innovation and [a] visionary approach to planning.” As someone who, as a columnist, watched, often critically, the LUCE’s six-year gestation period, the awards didn’t surprise me. It did take originality, innovation and vision to plan for inevitable growth in the post-sprawl context of Santa Monica, where urbanization has occurred and will continue to occur on a transportation matrix mostly defined in mid-20th century suburban terms.
The LUCE did so (i) by concentrating growth in a few areas that could accommodate change without disrupting existing patterns of city life, and (ii) by encouraging urban design that would create better places than the industrial brownfields and strip retail districts that new buildings would replace.
Five years have passed. It’s taken that long for a zoning ordinance update (ZOU) that would implement the LUCE to reach the City Council. Tomorrow night the council will commence a review and approval process for the ZOU that will continue into May and possibly June. The question is whether the vision of the LUCE will survive.
Although there are some thorny issues to deal with in the zoning ordinance itself, expect that most of the controversy at the ZOU hearings will involve proposed amendments to the LUCE. While some of these amendments are more-or-less technical, others implicate the core values of the LUCE. These amendments would remove from the LUCE the possibility of larger and more flexible developments, to create better public spaces, on Wilshire (by means of two “activity centers”) and elsewhere (by means of “Tier 3” developments). (I wrote about these amendments last month when they were before the Planning Commission.)
If the council accepts these amendments, then the council should offer to return the awards that the LUCE won, because the vision of the LUCE will be erased.
It’s not only what happens with these proposed amendments. As I discussed last week, the re-occupying of the Paper Made factory site has killed the LUCE vision for the industrial areas north of Olympic. But the new proposed amendments will eviscerate any creative ideas that were possible under the LUCE for the boulevards. With no activity centers on Wilshire and no Tier 3 on most of the boulevards, anything that is built there will be box retail or two-story office buildings, or, if a developer is brave enough to try even the Tier 2 discretionary process, the plain vanilla apartment buildings with ground-floor retail that the anti-development people say they hate so much. (I should also mention that the LUCE contains design requirements to make sure that activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not adversely affect adjacent neighborhoods.)
The LUCE was hardly perfect. Since before the council passed the LUCE I have been a relentless critic of the housing/office ratios it mandated for the old industrial areas; one plank of my campaign platform last year was to amend the LUCE to decrease the amount of office and increase the amount of housing. The LUCE is not holy writ. However, as a matter of process, aside from technical or otherwise small-scale amendments, any major substantive changes to the LUCE should require a process that has public outreach analogous to what took place during development of the LUCE (and no, it doesn’t need to take six years). Otherwise, concerted action by only a few members of the public might subvert the product of six years of input from many residents, including residents who aren’t regularly involved in these debates.
It is also a bit absurd for the City to consider these amendments in the context of the ZOU, since activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not even come under the zoning ordinance. That’s because they would require development agreements, which the zoning code doesn’t control and which require their own public processes. Activity centers even require the adoption of something called an “area plan.”
The council should deal with the ZOU now, and then initiate a public process to consider proposed major amendments to the LUCE. (Including, by the way, changing the housing/office ratios.)
Thanks for reading.