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.

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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.

Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare

For a liberal like me, it’s hard not to be cranky after Donald Trump’s TKO (i.e., Electoral College) defeat of Hillary Clinton. True, my mood was elevated somewhat by the local KO of Measure LV, but it took another hit when I turned my attention to the political issue of the day in Santa Monica, namely the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) now under review by the Planning Commission.

The latest draft of the DCP, issued in February, is the product of what is looking to be a never-ending sequence of planning processes. These began a dozen years ago with the start of what was supposed to be a two-year process to revise the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City’s general plan. The LUCE took six years of process before the City Council adopted it in 2010. Updating the Zoning Ordinance then took another five years (2010-15). During that time the City began the process to fill in a major gap left open in the LUCE, namely downtown Santa Monica (DTSM), and the draft DCP is what we now have for those efforts. After Planning Commission review, and further revision, the DCP is scheduled to come before City Council next spring.

Perhaps what’s most frightening about the DCP is that on its very first page of text, in an introductory section imagining a stroll in DTSM 20 years hence, the reverie ends with the statement that, “citizens in that far-off time [2036] are actively engaged in the fourth five year-revision of the original 2016 Downtown Community Plan.” (Note: the earliest the DCP will now be enacted is 2017.)

The fourth revision? As noted in the report on the DCP that planning staff prepared for the Planning Commission meeting Nov. 16 (after holding hearings that night, the Commission will again take up the DCP at its meeting next Wednesday, Dec. 7), the DCP has “been the subject of citywide discussion for the past five years.” And we’re supposed to update it every five years? Should we start the “citywide discussion” now for the 2022 update?

And note: it’s taken five years (and we’re not done yet) to plan for 20 years of development of only about 44 blocks, most of which already have buildings that are unlikely to be replaced for decades, or even this century.

Naturally, “citywide discussion,” what we’ve been having for five years, is a euphemism. For what (you ask)? Well, primarily for an out of control process that wastes everyone’s time. But that’s not the whole story. At the heart “citywide discussion” is a euphemism for elected officials not having the courage to let city staff plan, goddamn it, and then demand that staff give them something to vote on.

No, I don’t blame the hard-working and abused-by-the-public planners who drafted the DCP for the years-going-on-decades of “conversation.” I blame the electeds, and the succession of city managers since 2004, who themselves know plenty about planning, and could probably write the documents themselves, but who are afraid to make decisions without cover of meeting after meeting.

These meetings go nowhere, because they are designed to placate people who are opposed to change in any form, including the reasonable evolution of our downtown, people who will never be satisfied or persuaded by anything, let alone by more “conversation.” The City Council wants to placate the un-placatable, residents unhappy with change who don’t like downtowns and urban life in general, and don’t like our downtown in particular, what with its horrid tourists and young, happy, and “transient” apartment dwellers.

Further, the data and input that come from repeated meetings, including the eight months of outreach staff conducted since publishing the draft DCP in February, are by their nature going to be inconclusive. The more sequences of meetings there are, the more layers of iteration, the more inconclusive the data are going to be. People have different opinions. Planners must listen carefully to the public because the public has real world knowledge and ideas, but you can’t get plans from the public because, for one reason, members of the public don’t agree with each other. (And for now I’ll only mention the fact that staff didn’t bother talking to any of the workers at downtown hotels, people who, as opposed to many residents, are downtown everyday, who know the place and use the transit, and who might be able to use housing that could be built there.)

Memo to council members, to the Planning Commission, and to the City Manager: those residents you are trying to persuade to be happy with change have told you time and again that they won’t be persuaded. They will never be happy with any change that they imagine will add to traffic or that won’t restore the sunny days of their youth. Why don’t you cut the farce about pleasing them and get back to planning and deciding? At what point will you stop trying to make people love and respect you who at best look down their noses at you (Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City) or at worst despise you (Residocracy)?

Memo to council members: given (i) that anti-development targets Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day both won reelection without SMRR endorsements, (ii) that when all the votes are counted no-growther Armen Melkonians will likely have received votes from fewer than 25% of the number of Santa Monicans who voted this year, (iii) that yet again no candidate running on an anti-development platform has won election without a SMRR endorsement, and (iv) that RIFT and LV both lost decisively, is it too much to ask you to stand up and end our long municipal nightmare of perpetual planning? I.e., make some decisions instead of calling for more process?

Memo to council members and planning commissioners: If you believe that the charm and character of downtown will be destroyed if you allow buildings taller than 60 feet, fine. Vote that way. But can you finally vote? I.e., make decisions? Without fearing that the people will withdraw their love for you?

Finally, delay has substantive impact. The circumstances, economic, political, and otherwise, in which the LUCE process began in 2004 were quite different in 2010 when the LUCE was adopted, so much so that the LUCE was an artifact the night the council passed it, largely doomed not to be implemented.

Did I say I’m cranky?

Next time I’ll do some substantive analysis of the DCP. In the meantime, thanks for reading.