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.

Sic transit transit center

Well, the other shoe dropped on the Paper Mate site. Hines sold the property and now the old factory’s 200,000 square feet will become offices, with another level of parking being excavated under the existing parking lots.

Turns out that the paranoia of City Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis was warranted. During the signature gathering on the Residocracy petition they warned, in an op-ed for the Daily Press, that the alternative to the plan the City Council passed was not a better version of the plan, but a repurposing of the existing building as offices, which would mean thousands of car trips, no traffic mitigations, and none of the $32 million in community benefits that were included in the Hines plan.

I’m waiting to see how long it will take for someone to accuse the developers of being greedy because they aren’t building, across from the Bergamot Expo station, plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc., accessible to the public.

Not to mention the nearly 500 units of housing we’re not getting—housing that a lot of people who work in Santa Monica could use, housing that would keep them off the streets, so to speak, during commuting hours. But housing was not a plus for many people who opposed the project, and that explains why they’re happy with the new plan.

If the paranoia of O’Day and Davis turned out to be prescient, Council Member, now Mayor, Kevin McKeown turned out to be not so good in the prediction department. In an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Press, headlined “Calling for more housing from Hines,” he said that fears that Hines would “walk away” from the deal were unfounded; that “[s]uch a walk away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica.” Give McKeown his due; he’s not backing down now that Hines did walk away. Last week he told Santa Monica Next that, “[t]his project [the new one], even as adaptive reuse, will disappoint many of us, but the original Hines proposal failed in even more massive (and likely more permanent) ways to make appropriate use of a challenging site.”

I hope Mayor McKeown is right about the new plan being less permanent, but I doubt it. The “Pen Factory,” as the development is being marketed, will be around for a long time. Not only because it will take a while to amortize the considerable investment in the remodel (notably for underground parking), but also because once the offices are up and running and paying some of the highest rents in the region, the likelihood that an owner would shut the place down for the several years it would take to build a new project is slim. Expect that the Pen Factory will be there for 20 or 30 years at a minimum.

But McKeown was right that the Hines plan should have had more housing and less offices. I’ve been saying that since before the City Council approved the LUCE, which enabled the Hines plan, in 2010. The plan was flawed, and it may sound like blaming the victim, but I blame Hines as much as I blame anyone else for the plan crashing and burning. The Residocracy folks can’t help themselves, they’re going to oppose development no matter what, but Hines had a choice. Hines was warned as far back as 2010, by its friends, that if it added more commercial space and commuter traffic to the corner of 26th and Olympic, it was going to be in trouble.

Hines could have pulled its own chestnuts out of the fire. During the Planning Commission debate over the plan, Commissioner Richard McKinnon, with then-commissioner Sue Himmelrich’s support, proposed a reasonable alternative with less office and more housing. At City Council, Ted Winterer proposed much the same thing, and Tony Vazquez agreed with him. If Hines, at the commission or even at the council, had jumped up and grabbed this offer, the plan could have been approved at the City Council on a 6-1, rather than 4-3, vote.

That could have had a huge impact, because I doubt that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) would have joined Residocracy to oppose a plan that had had that much support among the SMRR-endorsed council members. Residocracy without SMRR might have been able to gather the signatures, but they wouldn’t have had much credibility looking ahead to November.

But then . . . maybe Hines didn’t care. The local Hines people put their heads, hearts and souls into the project, for six years, but headquarters back in Dallas probably figured they could find a willing buyer at a good price if the whole thing became just too complicated. Investors can’t wait forever. And Hines did follow the LUCE development standards, and they reduced their original project by 20 percent, so they legitimately thought they were playing fair. After the referendum, they had the right to feel that they’d never get a fair chance.

So, just how bad is the new project for Santa Monica? Pretty bad. But I’ll discuss how bad in a future post.

Thanks for reading.

How to build boxes on the boulevards

You may be familiar with the honor code of the Texas state legislature, as chronicled by the late Molly Ivins: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

After reading the staff report for Wednesday’s Santa Monica Planning Commission hearing on certain proposed amendments to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica’s general plan (LUCE), I’m thinking that the Texas code is not sufficient for Santa Monica. Maybe we need to add another disqualifier:

“If you can’t ignore panicked reactions to angry residents, you don’t belong on the Planning Commission.”

After a six-year process overseen by the Planning Commission, a process that involved remarkable public involvement, the City Council unanimously approved the LUCE in 2010. Back then the LUCE was popular. Even anti-development organizations then involved in Santa Monica politics, normally skeptical of anything emanating from City Hall, approved it.

So what happened? New anti-development groups, notably Residocracy, emerged. New politicians, such as Richard McKinnon, John C. Smith, Armen Melkonians, Phil Brock, and ultimately Sue Himmelrich, none of whom had been active in the LUCE process, also emerged. They hitched their wagons to the anti-development movement.

At the same time, battles were being fought over downtown hotels, battles that didn’t involve anything in the LUCE, but which provided endless fodder for opponents of development. Poorly considered preliminary plans for the Miramar got the Huntley Hotel involved, and the Huntley became a financial and organizational resource for the new anti-development players.

Then in early 2014 the City Council approved the Hines Paper Mate project on a 4-3 vote. The Hines project followed the LUCE guidelines closely, but it was unquestionably large, and suddenly the anti-development forces had, literally, a big target. Worse, because the one big failing of the LUCE was that it allowed for too much commercial development near Bergamot Station, the Hines project would have placed a lot of jobs at a location that was already overwhelmed with commuter traffic.

After defeating the Hines project, the anti-development forces looked for more targets. They found some on the boulevards. Wednesday night the Planning Commission will consider stripping from the LUCE a few mild encouragements for building something other than retail boxes on our boulevards.

Specifically endangered are two potential “activity centers” on Wilshire, one at 14th and one at Centinela. There the LUCE would allow for small increases in development standards to encourage multiple property owners to join together to make better places for mixed residential and commercial developments by sharing parking, open spaces, etc. Pretty innocuous, really, especially since anything built under the activity center designation would be subject not only to the intensive public review of a development agreement, but also to the preparation, through a public process, of a separate area plan.

Similarly, development opponents want to eliminate, from most of the boulevards, “Tier 3” developments, which allow for more housing to be built but which require a development agreement.

The opposition to development along the boulevards from a few people, concentrated in neighborhood groups, has been fierce. The staff report includes euphemistic statements like “substantial community input has been submitted questioning the continued appropriateness of the Wilshire activity centers,” or that the LUCE’s tiers of development and development review, have “created community concern.”

“Questioning the continued appropriateness?” “Created community concern?” Now nice. But we’re not talking about a tea party—or maybe we are.

There’s a lot of anger in Santa Monica these days about development, but there’s no indication that the passion, though at times deep, is widespread. After all hubbub over Hines, the hotels, etc., leading up to the November election, turnout was abysmally low. Yes, the two candidates running for City Council who got the most votes, Kevin McKeown and Himmelrich, ran on anti-development platforms, but factors other than their anti-development support were more crucial to their victories. As it happens, neither one of them got even one-sixth of the registered voters in the city to vote for them.

No one in Santa Monica politics has a mandate and no one bestows them. Elected and appointed officials should vote according their own analysis of the facts, using their knowledge and expertise, not according to who yells loudest.

And they should respect the process. The LUCE isn’t perfect. It should be amended. The development standards in the old industrial areas should be changed so that all new development in excess of what’s there now should be residential. This would respond to the chief complaint about the Hines project, that it had too much office development and not enough housing. But if we’re going to amend LUCE, let’s have a real process, not just the Planning Commission and staff sending something to council in response to squeaky wheels.

Back in 2010 when some of us were arguing against how the LUCE encouraged office development around Bergamot, because we wanted to see more residential development, staff told us not to worry because residential development would be located on the boulevards.

Now with this possible capitulation to the anti-development side, the City might abandon the possibility of building significant housing along the boulevards. But in the “be careful what you wish for department,” the anti-development folks should consider what this would mean.

When properties on our boulevards turn over, as they surely will, if property owners build to Tier 1 standards (up to two stories, 32-feet high) to avoid discretionary review, what do you think they will build? There are two possibilities:

• Retail boxes on top of underground parking. On Wilshire, think Whole Foods or Staples.

• Or maybe two stories of offices, with a bank or brokerage on the ground floor.

If you’re concerned about traffic, what do you think generates more car trips, a bank or a store, or an apartment building?

Thanks for reading.