More on Santa Monica’s DCP: discretionary review and parking

As I’ve written in two recent posts, tomorrow night the Planning Commission will review the Santa Monica Downtown Community Plan (DCP). After staff makes revisions to the current draft, the City Council will review and presumably (one hopes) vote on the DCP next spring. There will be plenty more time to comment on the DCP, but there are still two issues I’d like to focus on now: discretionary review and parking.

Discretionary review. Since even before the start of the LUCE general plan updates in 2004, Santa Monica has become addicted to discretionary review of development projects. Since discretionary review complicates the approval of any project other than basic, by-right development, discretionary review encourages mediocrity. Not only that, but because by-right planning is typically car-based planning (because the basic standards evolved over the 20th Century to accommodate cars), by-right projects typically generate more driving than larger, but more thoughtfully designed, projects. (Meaning that more people drive to and from a basic retail box surrounded by parking than they do to and from a larger apartment building.)

Discretionary review, however, didn’t arise from bad intentions. The original purpose of discretionary review, aside from allowing more detailed design and environmental review of large projects, was to permit more ambitious projects, but to “tax” them by having them pay “community benefits” to reflect some of the value that developers received from community investment and compensate for costs that development might cause the community to bear.

Using discretionary review for these purposes channels the “Community Benefits Agreement” movement that social justice organizations like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) have successfully promoted and implemented.

But for every yin there is a yang, and while the ultimate purpose of organizations like LAANE was to bring economic development to under-invested communities, anti-development elements in affluent communities latched onto discretionary review as a means for slowing, downsizing, or even stopping development by making development more costly and subject to delays, and riskier to the developer, who never could know for certain whether the project would be approved.

At which point discretionary review came to serve a third function, also negative. Policymakers and officials began to use discretionary review as a cover for not articulating definitive standards. They filled planning documents with rhetoric about, and pictures illustrating, general policies, but projects that would make those policies real were made subject, at ever-smaller thresholds, to discretionary review.

But then, cue the irony. In a healthy city like Santa Monica developers can make money if they can run the discretionary review gauntlet, and some developers here did so. Some projects were approved and some of them even got built. Yikes! The anti-development folks did a 180-degree turn, and suddenly what angered them most about the planning process was discretionary review. Now, they said, corrupt government officials were approving development agreements (DAs) without listening to the residents! (In fact, the officials had been too intimidated by the anti-development crowd to put real standards in their plans, and that’s why even routine projects required DAs.)

In Santa Monica this reversal, the attacks by anti-development groups on the development agreements they once championed, resulted in irrelevancy for the most important elements of the LUCE, namely, those dealing with the old industrial areas around Bergamot Station. It’s become clear that only by-right projects will proceed there, and any complicated projects, including for Bergamot Station itself, will be hopelessly tied up in “process.” Now the City is about to voluntarily do the same to downtown. The version of the DCP published in February was bad enough, requiring any development over 100,000 square feet to get a fully-discretionary DA, but now staff is suggesting that that threshold be reduced to 60,000 square feet.

So you wonder—what will it take for policymakers to realize that however they structure the process, with more review or less, the anti-development side is going to slam them if anything gets built? Why cater to them? They’ll get you coming or going. Why not try to develop zoning with definitive standards that equate to good projects (with good community benefits), so that 30 years from now the future residents of Santa Monica might look back and say that back then the wise were in charge (no doubt comparing them favorably to the policymakers of their day, who of course would be corrupt and stupid)?

Parking. Back in the ’60s, when Santa Monica was purportedly a sleepy beach town and/or leafy suburb run by the northern wing of the John Birch Society, the powers-that-be did something years ahead of their time. They created a shared parking district around what was then called the Third Street Mall. Property owners were assessed (taxed!) to build shared parking structures, and in turn were relieved of obligations to provide parking on site if they developed their properties.

Flash forward half a century, and in our “progressive” city, planners have come up with a downtown plan that is loaded with parking requirements, often calibrated for specific uses, meaning that a building’s future uses will be tied to its parking. This after the City has built shared parking at the main library and added more spaces in the parking district.

We’re told downtown is gridlocked. Then why require minimum amounts of parking? Readily available parking attracts drivers. Street parking downtown is not like in other neighborhoods, where residents need permit parking to make sure unrestricted spaces on the street are available to them. I don’t know of any streets downtown that don’t already have restrictions on street parking. Why should it be the City’s job to worry if future businesses or residents have enough parking? Let developers figure out if their tenants will need parking, and how much.

Furthermore, if parking is needed or desired, the City should not build and subsidize it. In fact, the City should open up zoning to allow private parties to build parking structures. If people need parking enough, they’ll pay enough to make it a business.

Santa Monica should expand the parking district to include all of downtown, eliminating parking requirements. Many cities around the country are doing this, as this map shows. Progressive Santa Monica is falling behind the curve.

Memo to Planning Commission: be bold. Ask staff to evaluate deleting all parking minimums in the DCP.

Thanks for reading.

Not-inspirational: more on the Downtown Community Plan

In my rant a few days ago I promised (threatened?) to come back with substantive analysis of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), which the Planning Commission will review at its meeting Wednesday night. Which I’ll do, but give me a few more paragraphs about euphemisms.

The news on the euphemism front is not all bad. The DCP has eliminated a least one: “opportunity site.”

In the early days of researching for the downtown plan planners identified eight sites downtown that were big enough for large and/or complex developments, and called them “opportunity sites.” Thankfully, that’s gone, replaced by the honest descriptor, “large sites.”

Opportunity site is the kind of euphemism that inflames the suspicious natures of anti-development folks, while driving up the wall anyone who values straightforwardness. It’s a smiley face phrase that is more provocative of questions (“What opportunities?” or “Whose opportunities?”) than it is descriptive. So farewell, opportunity sites.

But the euphemism news is not all good. The DCP is not euphemism-free. My favorite is calling a seven-block area in the heart of downtown Santa Monica (DTSM) the “Neighborhood Village” district. (In earlier versions of the plan the area went by the plain and useful name “Wilshire Transition.”)

Village? Sure, there’s Greenwich Village. But otherwise, could we agree not to use the word “village” to describe any place that doesn’t have thatched roofs? There’s never going to be a village south of Wilshire Boulevard, between Fifth and Seventh Streets, and to imply that people living in apartment blocks, or working in offices, are living and working in a village is simultaneously a misuse of a good word and an insult to urban living.

Why am I going on about euphemisms? Because they are symptomatic of planning that won’t come to grips with the making of plans. Planning documents that from fear of reactions hedge every decision with layers of overly prescriptive details and, ultimately, further review. That are filled with desultory pages of community self-congratulation. Planning that lauds creativity (page after page extolling everything “creative” in DTSM from the banners on the Promenade to the “fresh local produce and seafood” in the farmers markets), but finds every way to shackle creativity when it comes to what the plan should be about, namely guiding positively the physical evolution of the city.

(By the way, is food that’s trucked in from, say, the hinterlands of San Diego or Kern County, local? Family-farm raised, seasonal, wholesome and delicious, yes, but local? This idea that Santa Monica has local farms is all apiece with denial that Santa Monica is in the middle of a metropolis. We’re on an ocean’s edge; so is Brooklyn.)

But enough about euphemisms. Let’s talk substance. Let’s talk building height.

I’m a big fan of, and I’ve written in favor of, the European, pre-elevator five-story city. As this picture of the Sixth Street block where my father lives shows, this kind of development can look and feel good in DTSM.

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Sixth Street north of Colorado Avenue

I opposed the towers Macerich originally wanted to build at Santa Monica Place, and I never supported the tall towers proposed at the Miramar. I also expressed skepticism about the other hotel towers proposed for downtown, without their ever getting to a point in the development process where I had to, or could, form a conclusive opinion.

So I’m not crazy for height for height’s sake.

But the limits on height in the DCP—for practical purposes 60 feet (five or six stories, depending on the height of the first floor)—go too far. (While in some places, in a “Tier 3” project, the DCP would permit heights as high as 84 feet (eight stories), and the plan is vague on what might happen on the four remaining “large sites,” realistically the default height limit is going to be 60 feet, because in most of downtown developers will rarely if ever attempt a Tier 3 project, which would require a development agreement.)

This 60-foot limit epitomizes nothing more than resignation, lack of imagination, and catering to irrational fears about losing downtown’s “charm and character,” as if DTSM’s character is based on the mostly nondescript buildings there rather than the people on the streets.

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Charm and character in DTSM

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with streets lined with five- and six-story buildings, and I certainly don’t like the modernist “tower in a park” alternative. But there is a middle range, territory in which creativity can mean a lot, and the DCP should allow or even encourage development in that range.

We’ve seen this recently with the development approved for 500 Broadway, which puts towers reaching 84 feet high on a low-rise pedestrian-oriented base. This project, designed by local architects Koning Eizenberg, shows that you can put the same amount of development in a somewhat taller building, and create better apartments, with more light and air for the tenants, at the same time that you bring more light and air to the streets below, and create excellent connections to the street.

KEARCH Brodway

A rendering of the 500 Broadway project.

There’s no reason not to have a base maximum height of 84 feet for all of downtown. (By the way, having a 84-foot limit doesn’t mean property owners and developers will take advantage of it. The Promenade has had an 84-foot limit for decades and nothing has been built to that height.)

And there’s also no reason not to allow even taller buildings, within reason, on appropriate sites. What’s “within reason?” It varies by site. A site like the Miramar, abutting a residential district, wouldn’t accommodate a building as tall as might be appropriate next to the freeway (such as the Wyndham Hotel site, or near the Expo terminus), but I don’t see any reason why the Miramar shouldn’t be able to replace its existing 12-story tower, and then build to 84 feet elsewhere (with the understanding that the floor-area-ratio isn’t going to be more than 3.0, so that any high-rise structures are going to be skinny, leaving more open space or more space for other buildings that are considerably shorter.

And who is really going to be bothered if the City allows a taller building at Fourth and Arizona? There are already tall buildings nearby. Or to replace the Wyndham Hotel hard by the freeway, or the parking lot at Second and Santa Monica?

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13-story building on Sixth, near Arizona Avenue

Planning should be inspirational. The DCP isn’t.

Thanks for reading.

An emerging consensus on what to build in Santa Monica?

After six years of communal agonizing over the LUCE and then another five spent on a new zoning code to implement the LUCE, is there finally a working consensus on what projects can be built in Santa Monica?

Based on actions the Planning Commission took last week, the answer may be yes.

Could our long local nightmare be over?

As reported here and here and here, the Planning Commission last week approved two mixed use (retail on the ground floor, housing on the floors above) projects downtown that would together add 163 needed apartments to Santa Monica’s inventory of housing. These are the first significant projects to come before the commission under the LUCE and since approval of the zoning ordinance, and since two new commissioners took office who were recently appointed by the slow(er) growth City Council majority.

One project, on the block of Fifth Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway, is about 52,500 square feet of development on a double lot (i.e., on 15,000 square feet of land). The other, on the northwest corner of Lincoln and Colorado, is about twice the size, 102,500 square feet, but sits on five lots (37,500 square feet of land). The Fifth Street project has a height of 84 feet, the Lincoln Boulevard project would go up to 60 feet. Both projects require development agreements, and thus final approval will rest with City Council.

Fifth Street project; digital rendering by Michael Folonis, Architect

Fifth Street project; digital rendering by Michael Folonis, Architect

The Planning Commission voted 4-1 to forward the Fifth Street project to City Council (two of the seven commissioners were absent). The no vote came from new member Mario Fonda-Bonardi. His no, however, was a vote on principle against the 84-foot height (he wanted it reduced 10 feet), and otherwise he didn’t have big problems with the project. The vote for the Lincoln Boulevard project was a unanimous 5-0.

It’s significant that the majorities in favor of both projects included commissioners Richard McKinnon and new commissioner Nina Fresco, and the Lincoln Boulevard project received Fonda-Bonardi’s support as well. (Fresco and Fonda-Bonardi were both attending their first commission meetings.) McKinnon is generally identified with the slower-growth side in local politics. The development politics of Fresco are not well known, but the self-described slow-growth majority on the council appointed her to the commission. Fonda-Bonardi is strongly identified with anti-development views because of his being part of the S.M.a.r.t. group that writes for the Daily Press (even though, in a column he wrote, he advocated for the same rate of housing construction forecast in the LUCE, about 250 units a year).

Lincoln/Colorado Project; digital rendering by Killefer/Flammang Architects

Lincoln/Colorado Project; digital rendering by Killefer/Flammang Architects

The votes made it clear that at least certain kinds of projects are going to have support from a broad spectrum of Santa Monica politics. It’s worth looking at what the two projects had in common, beyond the fact that under their development agreements, the developer (NMS in both cases) had agreed to substantial community benefit packages and affordable housing.

Both projects:

  • Are located downtown, i.e., convenient to transit, and are otherwise designed to reduce environmental impacts, with LEED-platinum certifications, solar panels, and mechanisms for reducing water and energy use. Both projects would replace low-slung, suburban-style commercial buildings and surface parking primarily with housing. All the current council members, even those who identify themselves as “slow-growth,” recognize the need to build housing, given the region-wide shortage and market demand that’s pushing rents and housing prices to record highs.
  • Are characterized by good, contemporary design that maximizes public space and avoids “boxiness.” The Fifth Street project, designed by local architect Michael Folonis, creatively re-considered the use of setbacks, and instead of wasting them in a wedding cake design that would leave a monolithic street frontage, used the required cubic feet of the setbacks to widen the sidewalk in the front of the building into a mini-piazza and to create a “donut hole” in the middle of the building that will better open the façade to the street. The Lincoln Boulevard project, designed by local architects Killefer-Flammang, will create a similarly widened sidewalk/plaza area at the important corner of Lincoln and Colorado and a paseo coming off Lincoln.
  • Adhere to the City’s new standards for unit mix, to encourage more two and three bedroom units. Also, by breaking up the buildings with ground and upper floor open space, the architects have been able to give the apartments more light and air. The amount of development in both projects also reflects de facto downzoning downtown, since under the pre-LUCE development standards residential square footage was discounted 50% when determining the amount of development allowed. Perhaps ironically it’s the regional and local housing shortage and the resulting high rents that enable these projects, with their community benefits and reduced size.

Projects like these two mark and are consistent with 60 years of changes that have made Santa Monica a “post-sprawl” city. While there will be battles to come over big projects, while one wonders what’s going to be built on the boulevards, and while Residocracy may float an initiative that would ban nearly all development, nonetheless there are encouraging signs of an emerging consensus on what will work for Santa Monica’s future.

Thanks for reading.

Some are brave. I’m just curious.

In Santa Monica politics, you’ve got to be brave to support a planning staff recommendation, and I have to extend the profile in courage award to former mayor Mike Feinstein, who did precisely that last week when, in a Guest Opinion in the Lookout, he supported staff’s recommendations for what downtown heights to study in the environmental review for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

Readers might remember that in June Feinstein and I sponsored a forum to discuss the height issue. We wanted to try to focus on the momentous decision whether to change Santa Monica’s 30-year policy banning tall towers, separating it from issues that relate to development in general.

In that connection I was pleased over the weekend to hear City Council Member Kevin McKeown express the matter succinctly and well. He said that when it came to height, there were three issues: the aesthetics of height in general, the impact of height, negative or positive, on urban design at street level, and the “values” issue, i.e., whether granting more height for one purpose or another (such as high-end condos or luxury hotels) violates the way a community looks at itself.

What are not issues about height are, for instance, traffic, since a square foot of X is associated with same amount of traffic whether it’s on the third floor or the 20th, or tax revenues, since successful hotels and businesses and residential developments can be built in buildings eight floors or less, too.

As I’ve written before, I believe City Council should direct staff to expand the heights studied in DSP environmental review. Why? Because I’m curious.

But first, how high should they study? Feinstein in his article makes the point that once you decide to study higher heights, there is no logic about where to stop. I disagree. The rationale I would suggest for the DSP is to study up to the heights of existing buildings, since it’s beyond unlikely that we would ever approve going higher than what is already here. This rationale is no more arbitrary than staff’s cutoff of 135 feet, which they said was chosen to preserve views of the Clock Tower Building; I call that arbitrary, because a short, squat building is going to block more views of the Clock Tower than a tall, skinny building of the same square footage.

In fact, for most of downtown, my measure would support the staff’s recommendations, or something close to them. There are few buildings north of Wilshire or east of Second Street that exceed the 135 feet (about 12 stories) that staff says it wants to study for the so-called opportunity sites. There are quite a few buildings around that height (including the existing tower at the Miramar) and a few higher than it (such as the Huntley Hotel), but I can’t think of a compelling reason to study higher than 135 feet in those areas of downtown. (Yes, this means that my instinct is that the Miramar should go back to its original idea of capping its new development at 12 stories — but it should move the new height (after replacing its existing tower) away from California and Second Streets to Wilshire.)

For the record, I’ve always been in favor of the 1980s’ height limits and in the five- to six-story downtown that’s been under construction since they were enacted. I like the “pre-elevator” look and scale of buildings that high. And I opposed the proposal to build 22-story towers at Santa Monica Place. So, what am I curious about now?

I’m curious about the area south of Wilshire and west of Second. This is where there is already a cluster of towers. Not that they are good buildings, and it’s understandable why 30 years ago in reaction to them the newly-elected SMRR majority on City Council enacted a ban on high-rises. But the problem with those towers (aside from, in most cases, unimpressive architecture) is more a matter of scale than height itself.

For instance, I just learned that the old GTE building, 100 Wilshire, designed by Cesar Pelli, has a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of fourteen. Fourteen! By comparison, the whole Miramar development would have an FAR of 2.9, and the hotel/condo project Frank Gehry is designing would have an FAR of 2.6. It’s impossible that those projects could create a wall like the one that now exists on Ocean Avenue from Wilshire to Arizona.

In fact, architects and urban designers have learned a lot since the ’70s. They know now not to build towers in isolated parks, and we all have learned not to build massive towers that take up whole blocks.

When urban designer Stefanos Polyzoides spoke at the forum Mike Feinstein and I sponsored in June, the first thing he said you have to consider when deciding whether to build a tower is what would it replace. When I look at the blocks along Ocean south of Arizona, where two towers have been proposed, I see some sites where replacement would be good.

There’s the site of the Gehry-designed project, which is mostly a parking lot, and there’s the old Holiday Inn. The latter is not only a nondescript box, but access to it is going to be a problem when vehicles will have to cross the ultra-widened sidewalk of the new Colorado Esplanade to get to it. It’s a site that cries out for something new.

I don’t know how high the developers should be allowed to build, but I’d like to see higher heights studied because perhaps they will allow for the building of something better than we have now. And I’d like to see these heights studied as part of the DSP, because I’d like to see the cumulative impact two or more towers would have.

As I said, I’m curious.

Thanks for reading.

For Poorer and for Richer

Two of my favorite Santa Monicans to argue or agree with are former mayors Denny Zane and Michael Feinstein. (But it’s better when they agree with you.) The two of them will always let you know exactly what they are thinking and back up their arguments with facts and/or honest perspectives, as well as deep historical and practical knowledge.

But I disagree with their opposition to including luxury condominiums in any towers that the City might allow to be built along Ocean Avenue, opposition they expressed in articles Jason Islas wrote recently for The Lookout.

There are good reasons to question the desirability of allowing new towers along Ocean Avenue (there are also good reasons to favor them), but I don’t include opposing high-end residences as one of them.

Both Zane and Feinstein argue that allowing tall buildings for the purpose of housing rich people would compromise Santa Monica’s character — in Feinstein’s words, “change our entire community standards,” or, in Zane’s, to do so would “transgress some pretty fundamental values.” But what values and standards? Rich people are part of Santa Monica and always have been. From the earliest days there were mansions along Ocean Avenue, and let’s not forget Marion Davies’ little place on the beach. Luxury homes and the people who live in them are part of the mix that makes up our special character.

Would Zane and Feinstein say that Santa Monica’s community standards are challenged because 31% of all the land in Santa Monica, comprising nearly 47% percent of all residentially zoned land, is zoned for single-family homes? While it’s true that back in the days when Santa Monica was a factory town workers and shopkeepers lived in and owned many of those houses, it’s been a long time since a truly middle-income family could buy a house here.

I suspect that many of the people who oppose building towers on Ocean enjoy the fact that so much of our city is lightly populated (as do I – cities shouldn’t be uniformly dense), but the fact is that a lot of Santa Monica, including some of the most beautiful parts leading up to Santa Monica Canyon and the Santa Monica Mountains, is already privatized (to use Feinstein’s word). Has this ruined the character of Santa Monica? I don’t think so.

Opposing high-end condos also begs the question of what might go in a tower that would be less objectionable. Land downtown is zoned commercial; personally, I would find it worse to allow more office towers (like the former GTE and “Café Casino” buildings), and offices would also generate more traffic than condos. Does anyone want to build high-rises with only affordable housing? That’s a strategy that progressives rejected a long time ago. And what’s wrong with mixing residences with hotels? That’s a tradition in cities all around the world.

All in all, it seems that if towers are going to be built, the best mix that could be proposed would be a combination of hotels, market rate condos and apartments (meaning luxury, yes, but there’s nothing stopping the City from trying to negotiate housing for a broader mix of incomes), affordable housing (which in a development agreement can be required to be built on-site or nearby), and public access to the views from the tops of the buildings.

Thanks for reading.

Money Isn’t Everything

On Saturday I co-hosted with former Santa Monica Mayor Mike Feinstein a forum to discuss whether Santa Monica should relax the limitations on building height that it enacted in the ’80s. Because of limited seating at the venue (the restaurant Bizou Grill on Colorado Avenue, which deserves great praise) we couldn’t publicize the event widely, but about 70 interested community members turned out.

The discussion was good – serious talk about the pros and cons of building up. Frankly, it was hard to separate the issue of height from other issues relating to development and the future of downtown Santa Monica (at the moment, of course, there are three controversial tall hotel/condo developments pending), but as one participant told me later, there are benefits to isolating and focusing on one aspect of a complex problem.

I had many thoughts during the forum on what the issue of height is about, but also many on what height is not about, and in this post I’m going to write about some of the latter.

For one thing, height is not about density. As architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides (who journeyed from Pasadena to give an outside-of-Santa-Monica perspective) pointed out, two of the densest cities in the world, Paris and Barcelona, have few buildings higher than six stories. More allowable height enables the shifting of development into different shapes (for good or ill), but how much development to allow is a separate decision.

Height is also not about money, and this works both ways.

Misti Kerns, the head of Santa Monica’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, reminded the group that more hotel development indisputably will aid our local economy and help the city balance its budget. It’s not indisputable, however, that hotel development depends on allowing taller buildings. More than a few hotels have been built here since the height restrictions were enacted 30 years ago, and the City Council has already voted to give priority in the planning process to hotel developments.

It’s true that the City faces deficits over the next few years, but none of the hotels now in the development pipeline could be opened in time to help with the current situation. Even if they could, does anyone believe that fundamental long-term planning decisions should be made one way or the other to solve an immediate budget issue?

But “money” arguments that the opponents of height make are also irrelevant. These take various forms, including (i) “the only reason to build is so that greedy developers can make money,” or (ii) “the only reason to build is so that rich people can live in luxury condos.”

As for developers’ profits, we live in a capitalistic society characterized by the profit motive and the importance of investment in assets, including real estate. If you want to see a city where developers stopped investing, take a look at Detroit, and unless you live in a building built by a nonprofit affordable housing developer, you either live on property that a developer subdivided and developed or in a building that one built.

Sure developers are out to make a buck, but then so are film producers and doctors and artists, but I don’t see anyone calling them greedy when they make a successful movie or build a good practice or sell a painting. Nor have I heard homeowners calling themselves greedy for feeling good when home values increase, or future retirees complaining when the investments in their 401k or pension plan increase in value.

As for the luxury condo argument, 31% of the land in Santa Monica is zoned single-family residential, and this being the Westside, we can assume that nearly every one of those houses is affordable to only the 10% (and a lot of it to only the 1%). We may not need social policies to get housing for rich people built, but don’t kid yourself that it isn’t part of what Santa Monica is. Besides that, it’s a good thing when rich people want to live in your downtown. It shows you’ve done something right.

And look: do you believe the opponents of the pending tall hotel/condo projects would like them any better if they had a mix of work-force and affordable family-oriented housing that perfectly meshed with Santa Monica’s needs? Or, heaven help us, what if someone wanted to build 120 affordable units at the Miramar instead of 120 condos? Would the Huntley Hotel accept 22 stories of that?

When we’re talking about height, let’s talk about height. I’m sure the aesthetic, communitarian, urbanism, and other real issues about it will give us plenty to argue over all by themselves.

Thanks for reading.

Fact: for 20 Years There has been Little Development in Santa Monica

I’m still thinking about that big meeting a week ago Monday on downtown development.

When planning staffer Francie Stefan was describing, in remarks before the microphone was opened to the public, the process to write a specific plan for downtown she observed that there had been no office buildings constructed in downtown Santa Monica for 20 years.

When I heard that I thought to myself, it’s not only downtown, but there’s been little office development anywhere in Santa Monica since the Water Garden went up about 20 years ago. Since then the 194,000-square foot expansion of Lantana on Olympic Boulevard has been the only significant new office development. Yes, there have been rebuilds of existing buildings, such as with Agensys, but very little else.

Contrary to what everyone seems to believe, for 20 years there has been hardly any commercial development in Santa Monica and barely enough housing development to make a dent in the huge housing deficit on the entire Westside.

Sure, you see a lot of construction, but think about what it is — other than housing (with a little retail on the ground floors) the construction has been mostly to replace older buildings. There has been little net new commercial development.

The biggest private projects have been the new buildings for St. John’s and UCLA Santa Monica hospitals, but those mostly replaced buildings destroyed or damaged in the Northridge Earthquake. (In fact, when completed the new St. John’s will be smaller than what it was before the earthquake.) The re-do of Santa Monica Place was just that, a re-do. No large new hotels have been built since the Loew’s and Le Merigot — the new Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue replaced (and expanded somewhat on) two old hotels. Apple replaced Borders. RAND replaced its old buildings with a new building of about the same size (300,000 square feet) — even though under the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan the think tank could have built another 200,000.

There have also been public projects like the new public safety headquarters, and of course the biggest construction project in years is now underway — bringing the Expo line to Santa Monica.

To the extent that traffic congestion has increased at certain times and in certain directions over the past 10 years relates much more to economic growth over the entire 405 corridor than any purported “massive overdevelopment” in Santa Monica (although certainly the time and place of the congestion relates to the commuting pattern into the city).

City Council and planning staff have not sold the city to developers.

We all benefit from the overall thoughtful and careful approach to development that Santa Monica has had for 30 years. Sure, it could have been even more thoughtful and careful — if the 9 million square feet of office development approved in the ’80s had been split 50-50 between offices and housing, we’d all be better off. But we’re not going to fix that imbalance by preventing housing development now.

Fortunately, housing is where the development market is now in Santa Monica. The development agreement projects proposed not only for downtown but throughout the city are mainly for housing, including the condo developments associated with the hotel projects and the affordable housing tied to them. I know it is hard to persuade people of this, but new housing in Santa Monica has only a small impact, and possibly a net positive impact, on traffic congestion. Increasing the number of housing units by 10% (5,000 units) as the LUCE contemplates will not affect traffic significantly.

To solve transportation problems and make good use of our investments in transit, we need more housing near jobs. Council Member Kevin McKeown expressed this succinctly in yesterday’s Daily Press: “The number one antidote to the ‘commute and pollute’ problem is proximity. Putting worker-affordable housing near jobs makes the use of mass transit more likely, and in some cases can mean walking or biking to work.”

The housing market is a continuum that runs in Santa Monica from luxury condos to SROs for people who would otherwise be homeless: from Ocean Avenue condos to Step Up on Second, and everything in between.  We need housing at all income levels, because at every point along the continuum housing is fungible: a shortage of housing will turn middle-class housing into upper-class housing and working-class housing into middle-class housing, and so on.

Put another way, if we want Santa Monica’s empty-nesters to sell their houses to the next generation of families, and if we want those empty-nesters to stay in Santa Monica, we need to build condos for them to buy or apartments for them to rent. It’s easy to say that the high-end market for housing will take care of itself, and certainly no one will go homeless directly if there isn’t a condo to buy at the Miramar or in the Frank Gehry tower, but developers can’t build any kind of housing unless they have permission to do so.

Thanks for reading. (By the way, you may not hear from me for a while — I’ll be on vacation until the beginning of June.)