Santa Monica, post LUCE: slicing and dicing ahead

About 25 years ago laws designed to protect existing housing from demolition had made it difficult to build new housing in Santa Monica. Housing developers sued, complaining that Santa Monica was violating state laws designed to encourage housing. They won and the City had to revise its housing policies.

Santa Monica still wanted to protect existing housing, and the City devised a brilliant solution. City Council retained protections for housing in the neighborhoods, but enacted new zoning that allowed and encouraged housing in commercial districts downtown. It took a while for the new policies to have an impact because of the economic troubles of the ’90s, but by the end of the decade downtown developers were building significant numbers of apartments.

While most council members were happy with the new housing, some were not thrilled with the form it was taking. The developments were typically five-story buildings with ground floor retail, built with wood-frame construction above a first floor of concrete. Council members wanted more varied architecture and design elements such as courtyards that were open to the street.

The late Ken Genser was particularly concerned with these issues. He acknowledged that to allow for better design projects would need to be bigger; in fact the focus of his complaint was that developers were “slicing and dicing” projects to make them small enough not to be subject to discretionary development review, which then made amenities like courtyards difficult to provide.

I was reminded of this history as I watched the City Council’s hearing Wednesday night on the new zoning code. With planning staff and the council majority joining to reduce drastically the geography for Tier 3 developments, and to eliminate “activity centers” (on Wilshire today, everywhere tomorrow), expect to see more slicing and dicing.

It was only five years ago, with the approval of the new Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), that staff and the council were trying to encourage better developments, developments that would include public serving open-spaces, shared parking, grocery stores and other neighborhood serving retail, and other public amenities. To get these amenities (not to mention more affordable housing), the LUCE counted on developers to use Tier 3 and activity centers, because those larger projects would require development agreements. Development agreements get a bad rap, but it’s through them that the City can get more from developers.

I’m not one of those who believe that abandoning Tier 3 means no housing will be built. So long as interest rates are low and tenants will pay monthly rents of $4 per square foot, developers will find ways to build. But with the elimination of Tier 3 and activity centers, forget the public spaces, shared parking, etc.

Imagine you’re the owner of the property underneath a big grocery store or shopping centers on a boulevard. When the day comes when you want to turn the property over, what do you think you’ll do? Try to build something big, with a public plaza, shared public parking, and a supermarket? Or slice and dice your land and build boxes?

In much of the city, there is no longer even that choice. In the post LUCE environment, the rule will be “make no big plans.”

• • •

I also get the feeling that staff and some members of the council expect that by eviscerating the LUCE they will mollify the most vociferous voices against any development that doesn’t conform to idealized mid-20th century suburbia. Dream on. As these council members approve developments that fit the new standards, they will become the new targets of anti-development wrath.

Which makes me think of Ken Genser again. Genser was the original and most creative of all anti-development politicians in Santa Monica. Strongly protective of neighborhoods, instigator and supporter of various down-zonings, Genser nonetheless made distinctions. He supported the two most contentious developments that arose during his time on council, the original Civic Center Specific Plan and the downtown Target.

Genser never wavered in his belief in a low-scale city, but he ultimately concluded that those who were most adamant against development could never be satisfied. Each reduction in development standards only moved the goalposts. Near the end of his life Genser even opposed Measure T, the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic,” that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) put on the 2008 ballot.

The goalposts continue to move. For more than 30 years most Santa Monicans have agreed that Santa Monica should closely regulate development and the City has responded by restricting development. (We all know the facts, that there has been little development in Santa Monica.) But every few years a new crop of anti-development activists rise up and act as if they are the first people to notice that traffic is bad. How else do you explain that the LUCE, which anti-development groups, such as the SMCLC, lauded when it was passed, has now become, five years later, the embodiment of evil to the new group, Residocracy, and other new, anti-development voices?

As cities evolve, change is disorienting. But we wouldn’t have neighborhoods we love, like Ocean Park, Pico, or Wilmont, or now downtown, and tens of thousands of Santa Monicans wouldn’t live in those neighborhoods, if change hadn’t happened.

Change can enhance what we have already. Main Street is not even a boulevard, but consider what’s happened north of Ocean Park Boulevard. Various groups of residents opposed the apartments and retail that replaced the Boulangerie, the CCSM affordable housing at Main and Pacific (with its local-serving shops), and the Urth Cafe. But they all got built and they’ve turned those blocks into a better neighborhood center than what was there before.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thanks for reading.

Amending the LUCE: at what point does Santa Monica give back the awards?

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.

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.

 

Paper Mate: Small differences, big differences

Because of a family obligation Tuesday evening I didn’t watch the City Council’s deliberations on the Hines Paper Mate project until last night, and I tried to wait before forming any opinions until I watched the hearing, because I knew there would be subtleties. (I suggest watching the video from at least the 1:50 mark; the press coverage of the hearing has also been good, with the most detailed analysis coming from Lindsay Miller in Santa Monica Next. I also recommend Jason Islas’ article in The Lookout in which he collects the reactions of several former mayors – they disagree, but they all have important things to say.)

What I learned from watching the meeting was that the council was even more closely divided than the 4-3 vote indicates, and that the obstacle to a broader agreement that would have garnered five or even six votes turned out to be fear of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). To see how close the councilmembers were to reaching a compromise, one needs to follow the motions the councilmembers made.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown made the first motion, which was to return the project to staff to study turning the entire project into residential, with only ground-floor retail as commercial development. This was the proposal that former mayor Denny Zane and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights have been suggesting.

While McKeown’s motion was dead on arrival for various reasons, it’s significant that he did not call categorically for a reduction in the size of the project. He did say that he wanted to see a project that would generate no net new car trips, but he pointed out that office development, on a square footage basis, produces three times the traffic of housing; it is conceivable that an all residential/ground-floor retail project at the 765,000 square feet proposed in the plan would not generate more traffic than what would be generated if the existing factory were turned into offices.

So, McKeown recognized that considerable development was appropriate for the site, and he wasn’t necessarily calling for a down-sizing. Nonetheless, the motion was never going to get four votes, and for at least a couple of reasons.

The first was that at least four council members believe that the project is better with some office development and, as Councilmember Gleam Davis pointed out, no one during the updates of the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), including, by implication, McKeown, had called for development in Bergamot to be 100% residential.

The second reason McKeown’s motion was DOA turned out to be the crucial factor in the whole debate, namely that changing the plan in any significant way would cause so much delay that a majority of councilmembers believed that the whole project would be in jeopardy. They feared that Hines would throw in the towel and reoccupy the factory site, thus stymieing the redevelopment of the area pursuant to the LUCE and the recently passed Bergamot Area Plan.

To a significant extent this problem was a result of the failure, as identified by former mayor Michael Feinstein in the aforementioned Lookout article, of the City to have had a more residential project evaluated under CEQA and negotiated with the developer. But beyond that, something was missing at Tuesday night’s meeting that would have been necessary to alter the project: any negotiation with the developer. If you have watched City Council deliberations on development agreements before, you know that there are typically several moments when the developer’s attorney asks for time to consult with his client, and then informs the council what changes in the agreement his client would agree to.

I wasn’t in the room, but from the video none of that seemed to happen Tuesday night, which makes me think that the councilmembers who were concerned about delay had grounds to believe that there was not going to be much more negotiating. But neither could they assure Hines that what they decided on Tuesday night would be approved later.

This problem about certainty became even more apparent with a motion from Councilmember Ted Winterer. Winterer proposed changes to the project that I and many others would have liked to see: he proposed restricting office development to one building, essentially replicating the square footage that now exists in the factory, and converting the second proposed office building into housing. This would have made all added square footage, and 70% of the whole project, residential.

It appeared that Winterer’s motion could have garnered four or even five or six votes, but it was staff’s view that it would take months for environmental review for this new configuration, and there was no way for the council to approve the plan before then, meaning that council couldn’t close a deal. The motion lost 5-2. (McKeown voted against it because he thought the project would still have too much office.)

Winterer’s motion was particularly significant because when he and Councilmember Tony Vasquez, who both ultimately voted no on the project, voted yes on the motion, they voted yes on a project with the full 765,000 square feet. The was reminiscent of what happened at the Planning Commission, where Richard McKinnon, Susan Himmelrich, and Jennifer Kennedy, commissioners who all ultimately voted no on the project, all voted in favor of a similar, “full-sized but more residential” proposal that McKinnon made.

With all the charges flying around about developer campaign contributions corrupting the four council members who voted yes, the fact is that because of the many virtues of this project as a whole, virtues that are well known to the council members and the planning commissioners, two councilmembers and three planning commissioners whom the anti-development side supports voted for a project that is only marginally different from the project that passed. (In fact, the project that passed has increased levels of affordable housing because of amendments Councilmember Gleam Davis proposed.)

When Winterer’s motion failed, it was Davis who made a last-ditch motion to try to garner more than a four-vote majority. Her proposal did what neither McKeown’s nor Winterer’s did: she moved explicitly for a reduction in size, by removing about 42,000 square feet of office development and not replacing it with housing. She did this in hopes of picking up one or two more votes, but neither Winterer nor Vazquez supported her.

Well, maybe they would have if that motion had come to a vote, but it all became moot because staff, even though the environmental review would take less time since the project was only being reduced in size, could not find a means for the council to approve the project with the reduction before all the documents and plans were changed to reflect it. A majority of councilmembers were concerned that without any certainty of approval Hines would reoccupy the factory and there would be no deal.

What we saw Tuesday night was a failure of CEQA and the triumph of form over substance. The purpose of CEQA is to give decision-makers data relating to the environmental impacts of their decisions, and, sure enough, the councilmembers were well aware from environmental review of the relative impacts of office and residential development. They had plenty of knowledge on which to base a decision to increase the amount of housing.

In the view, however, of the City Attorney and planning staff, CEQA would not have been satisfied, or, and this was important, at least not satisfied enough in the face of expected litigation. In effect, it’s not sufficient for the councilmembers to base their decision on what they know from environmental review if what they learned didn’t originate precisely within the scope of the environmental review. CEQA, instead of protecting the environment, became an impediment to the council’s adopting an alternative that would have had less impact than the plan the council approved.

In the end, a bare majority of four councilmembers approved the project, as modified in certain respects, including to increase affordability.

At the heart of this approval was the LUCE, and it was clear that the four councilmembers of the majority believe in what the council did when it unanimously adopted the LUCE in 2010, calling for development of considerable office space in Santa Monica’s former industrial areas. They believe that more offices near the light rail will help with traffic in the long run. I suspect they also believe that Hines played by the rules, developing a project in accordance with the LUCE ratios, and that it wouldn’t be fair to change those rules now.

Mayor Pam O’Connor also made the point that 82% of Santa Monica residents who work, work outside the city, and that we can also reduce traffic by locating jobs nearer to them. True, but we all know the traffic pattern that is the worst is the inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon. Perhaps the most reassuring comment for those of us who believe we need more housing in the area instead of offices came from Councilmember Terry O’Day, who pointed out that none of the 33 currently pending development agreements propose any offices.

While by Santa Monica standards the Paper Mate project is a big development it will add only about 150,000 square feet of office development on top of the square footage of the existing factory, while building almost 500 units of housing. There are millions of square feet of office in the area and more elsewhere on the Westside, and 150,000 square feet aren’t going to make a big difference. In square footage terms, 70% of the net new development is residential.

Still, the battle lines are being drawn, there is talk of a referendum and everyone expects a nasty election in November fought over development issues. Freud has that expression I like so much, “the narcissism of small differences.” When I consider how small the difference was between the proposal Winterer and Vazquez voted for and the plan that passed, and when I reflect on the fact that McKeown at least contemplated a 765,000 square foot project with his motion, I start to think of Freud.

Thanks for reading.

Taking circumstances into account

Wednesday night the Planning Commission approved a draft development agreement (DA) to allow the developer Hines to tear down the old 203,000 square foot Papermate factory on Olympic and build a 767,000 square foot office and residential project. This vote represented good work by the four commissioners who voted for the project and by the three who voted against it.

Last week’s hearing was the commission’s fifth on the Papermate project. I have heard people say that this was excessive, but it wasn’t for a project of this magnitude. I don’t remember exactly how many hearings the Planning Commission, when I was on it in the ’90s, held on the St. John’s Hospital DA, but there were many and we even had the City hire an architect to give us a second opinion about some aspect of it. It’s reasonable for the commission (and staff) to spend this kind of time on a big project — I bet that on a per-square foot basis it’s not so many minutes.

Why do I say that both the commissioners who voted for the project and those who voted against it did good work? To begin with, the entire commission worked to improve the project and achieved improvements that even the developer acknowledged. When the project goes before the Architectural Review Board, it can benefit from input there, too.

As for the four commissioners who voted in favor, in a difficult political climate they did the responsible thing and voted for a project that the city must have. It would be disastrous for the Bergamot Expo line station to have to face the massive bulk of the Papermate factory, sitting as it is on a 310,000 square foot superblock. The Papermate site is the key site for the connection of the whole Bergamot plan area to the light rail. This has been acknowledged at previous hearings before the commission and before City Council.

An aerial showing the location of the Papermate factory on Olympic, across from Bergamot Station. (From the S.M. planning staff's PowerPoint presentation.)

An aerial showing the location of the Papermate factory on Olympic, across from Bergamot Station. (From the S.M. planning staff’s PowerPoint presentation.)

It was interesting that Wednesday it was Commissioner Richard McKinnon, one of the three commissioners who ultimately voted against the project, who made this point most forcefully. McKinnon pointed out that the worst result would be that Hines would simply turn the factory into offices. If you don’t think this would happen, consider that this is what Red Bull did with another big industrial building next to Papermate. If Hines did that, we would get all the traffic of office development, with none of the residential development and new streets the area needs, and without any of the traffic mitigations and other benefits included in the DA.

What the four-person majority did was to recognize that the commission had negotiated as much as the commission could negotiate, and it was time to send the project to City Council for final negotiations. As I said, in the current climate, this took courage. But when it comes to those final negotiations, I hope it will be the ideas of the minority who voted against the project that the council will be able to use.

Going back to the six years during which the LUCE was being developed and the Papermate development was taking shape, which was when I was writing my Lookout column, I always took the view that ideally all new development in the old industrial areas would be residential (with only incidental, neighborhood-oriented commercial development). More housing is needed to balance the overwhelming amount of office development that was built in the ’80s and ’90s. (Because I’ve discussed it so often, I won’t go into here why residential development not only would not exacerbate our traffic problems but also would have many benefits.)

But ideals have to take into account circumstances, and the circumstance here, as Commissioner McKinnon and others noted, is that Hines already owns a 203,000 square foot commercial building. Moreover, even under the pre-LUCE zoning, which allowed a floor-to-area-ratio of 1.0, and I suspect now under what’s called a “Tier One” development (not that I pretend to understand the rules), Hines could add a mezzanine with about 100,000 more square feet of development inside the existing building. This would give Hines 300,000-plus square feet of office — nearly equal to all of the office development in their current proposal.

Commissioner McKinnon’s proposal was to allow Hines to build 233,000 square feet of office, plus about 30,000 square feet of retail; this would mean that 142,000 square feet of office in the plan would be converted into more housing. His motion failed on a 4-3 vote, but I don’t know if this position was ever taken up in negotiations with Hines.

I hope that planning staff (and Hines) look into something like McKinnon’s proposal before taking the DA to City Council, and, if they don’t, I hope that the council members insist they do so. But I would rephrase and remake McKinnon’s proposal slightly, for the purpose of making a deal. What seems fair is to allow Hines the 310,000 square feet of commercial development they would have under the pre-LUCE zoning (about 45,000 square feet more than what McKinnon was proposing). The rest of the project would be residential: a net change of about 100,000 square feet from commercial to residential.

Not so long ago, when the office market was stronger than the residential market, I can imagine that this would have been a deal-breaker for Hines, but I would hope that it wouldn’t be one now, given that the residential market, both for rentals and condos, is now so strong.

A lot of people (including myself!), observing the morning and afternoon gridlock generated by commuters coming into the Bergamot area, wonder how it’s possible to consider any more office development there. But the fact is — 203,000 square feet already exist on the Papermate site. I know it’s cold consolation, but 300,000 square feet of offices is not a lot when compared to the many millions of square feet already in existence in Santa Monica and West L.A., and the location across the street from the Expo line is the best place for the development.

Thanks for reading.

To Study or Not to Study

Tuesday night’s City Council meeting is going to be the latest big meeting on development standards in Santa Monica. The topic will be the scope of the environmental review for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

Planning staff, in the staff report, takes a conservative approach, recommending that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) cover only small changes to existing standards for both building heights and the amount of permitted development. Nonetheless, by including in the report two alternative actions that the council could take, staff has invited the council to expand the scope of the EIR to study the impacts of taller heights proposed in current pending projects and possible density bonuses for uses that generate fewer car trips.

Because the purpose of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is to give decision-makers more information, not less, to inform their decision-making, the council should accept this invitation and expand the scope of the EIR.

Having said that, my instinct is that much of the staff’s conservatism is warranted, at least for most of downtown.

Regarding density, staff analyzed the current levels of development downtown and found that because of the density bonus for housing adopted in the ’90s to encourage residential development in commercial zones downtown, development in downtown Santa Monica often exceeds an floor-area-ratio (FAR) of 3.0 (meaning that on the average a given parcel of land could be 100% covered with a three-story building) and can approach an FAR of 4.0. (Because of requirements for light and air, and sometimes for setbacks, buildings in real life always require more stories than the theoretical average number of stories allowed under a given FAR.)

In general, consistent with what the reality has been over the past nearly 20 years, staff recommends FARs of between 2.5 and 4.0, but recommends dropping most of the density bonus for housing, intending that housing can be incentivized by other means (some of which are required by state law).

While an FAR as high as 4.0 should be rare in downtown (an FAR over 3.0 is difficult to work with on the small parcels that characterize most of downtown Santa Monica), where higher densities (within the range) might make sense would be on the western (Ocean Avenue) and southern (freeway) edges, because the density that you would be putting in those locations would not be “reflected” by density “across the street.” I don’t mean that you could double the density, but there could be more — but that would require more height to get appropriate light and air for the building and avoid boxy massing.

Which brings up the height issue. Given how controversial the three hotel/condo towers proposed for west of Second Street have been, I can understand the staff’s reticence about studying heights that high in the EIR, but not to study them would be ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s not, however, only (or even primarily) the environmental impacts that need analysis; aesthetic impacts are even more important. For height, we need an “AIR” – “Aesthetics Impact Report.”

And a “Meaning Impact Report” — we also need to analyze how higher heights affect the “meaning” Santa Monica has or the meaning — or values — that we want Santa Monica to have. Santa Monica has never been only a resort — we were once equally famous for the aircraft built here — but the beach and its attractions (both natural and human-made) have been an important part of our identity as a world famous place. Unusual for resorts, for a long time we’ve also been the edge of a metropolis. But how urban do we want that edge to be?

That’s a debate worth having, and one we need to have before the City Council makes its final decision about heights. To have that debate, and to make that decision, the community and the council need to see appropriate visualizations and models.

It’s hard to resist dipping a toe into the substance of that debate. Planning staff claims that there is less support for taller buildings west of Second Street than east of it, but that’s not what I’ve heard. Admittedly, I don’t have a scientific sample (nor does staff), but what I’ve heard frequently is that given that there are already many tall buildings along Ocean Avenue, that’s where new towers (if any are to be allowed) should go. Also, skinny tall buildings overlooking Palisades Park (densities being equal) will block breezes and views less than squat short ones.

We should be more conservative with the 20 or so blocks east of Second Street and north of Colorado. There are few buildings above six stories there and tall buildings would stand out more. In this I am being influenced by what Stefanos Polyzoides said at the forum Mike Feinstein and I hosted June 22, namely that towers are best when they are clustered, rather than scattered about. The five- and six-story height limits have worked well on what have become primarily residential blocks on Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh.

See you Tuesday night — and 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.)