In the wee hours . . . wisdom?

I’m inclined to consider it a missed opportunity for comprehensive planning, but the fact that both developers and the anti-development faction in Santa Monica politics seem happy with the City Council’s decision last week to limit environmental review of the Downtown Specific Plan to building heights not exceeding 84 feet might be a sign of clear-sighted wisdom on the council’s part.

What the council did was limit the scope of the EIR to 84 feet, but made it clear, and no one on the dais objected to this, that developers had the right to seek amendments to the DSP if they could show that their taller projects would be worth it to the city to approve.

I suspect that this suits the druthers of any given developer, who would rather argue the merits of his or her specific project than get caught up in an abstract (and emotional) discussion about building heights in general, and those of the anti-development community, who wouldn’t like it if (and note I said if) environmental review showed that taller buildings didn’t themselves create much in the way of environmental impacts, and then that shifted momentum in favor of heights before the issues of aesthetics and values could be discussed.

My initial reaction is that the council’s decision precludes the kind of comprehensive discussion we should have about a decision to allow taller buildings, but I can see two reasons (at least) why I could be wrong:

One is that maybe comprehensive planning is overrated. The most beautiful, livable and joyful cities of the world became such more often because of the accretion of many individual decisions rather than by the imposition of plans (although over time successive plans are themselves discrete decisions), and so perhaps focusing the review process on individual projects will be a good thing.

The other is that the crucial decisions about height are not evaluated in an environmental impact report (EIR), particularly one for a general plan. Consider the three criteria that Council Member Kevin McKeown has articulated as relevant to a decision about height: aesthetics, impact on the street level, and community values. None of these criteria, except possibly aesthetics in a cursory manner, would be part of the EIR for the DSP.

So maybe I’m wrong about the comprehensive environmental review — but I still say we should have a community discussion about the aesthetics of height and the values issues implicated by height that is independent of any given project.

Regardless how wise the council members were or might have been Tuesday night, they were admirable in how they handled the matter. There they were in the wee hours after hearing hours of conflicting and often passionate testimony, including accusations of some of them being corrupt, and they coolly and sensibly considered the matter before them.

Consider the surprising ways the discussion went. Gleam Davis, one of the council members unfairly vilified as a tool of developers by some members of the anti-development community, made the motion to limit environmental review to 84 feet. Terry O’Day, also a target, seconded the motion. Ted Winterer, one of the favorites of the anti-development side, proposed an amendment to extend an FAR bonus to projects that provide traffic mitigations, and anti-development stalwart Kevin McKeown forcefully reminded everyone (including those in the anti-development camp who don’t believe we need anything) that we “need housing.”

It was great. And what makes me even more happy? I don’t have to write about building heights for a while.

Thanks for reading.