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Council Sends Planners Back to the Drawing Board

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

January 25 -- After four hours of public testimony and discussion, the City Council ordered an abrupt about-face by staff, sending the blueprint that will guide all future development in Santa Monica back to the drawing board.

Responding to some of three dozen people who’d come to weigh in on alternative planning scenarios, the council passed a motion by a 4 to 2 vote directing staff to return with a “methodology” to get more public input.

The new information will be used to create a list of community-directed “goals” and “values” to guide the council’s analysis of the planning department’s proposals. These include relegating new development to the Downtown, the industrial corridor and along boulevards, and dispersing new development to “neighborhood centers.”

“A number of people have raised legitimate concerns here,” said Council member Ken Genser, who drafted the motion.

“There is a tremendous amount of distrust,” Genser said. “There is no substance” to the plans “where anyone can see where we are going.”

“I didn’t detect a large scale distrust,” countered Council member Richard Bloom, who, with Council member Pam O’Connor, voted against Genser’s motion.

Council member Kevin McKeown, who supported the motion, said it would reduce misunderstanding and bring the council and the community together in a common goal.

Some residents argued that the City’s plans -- which were hammered out after extensive public input -- were based on an assumption of increased development, which they said the public had clearly opposed.

The alternative scenarios for future development presented by the City planning department deliberately did not include numbers or forecasts.

Those were to be plugged in later, after the council had decided which parts of the city should be open to further development or zoning changes, if any.

The documents before the council also included lists of “elements” and “options” and rhetorical questions culled from public meetings, questions such as, “How much new housing should Santa Monica plan for to (remain) inclusive and maintain opportunities for affordable housing and yet retain an ‘appropriate town scale?’”

A good part of the evening was spent arguing whether or not these items constituted “goals.”

“The goals are already here,” O’Connor said in frustration. “We are not going to start from square one… It’s here. Let’s build on it.”

“These are indicators, but they are not goals,” Genser said.

Bloom said he was “very uneasy.”

“I’m not sure I see the difference between a theme and a goal,” he said.

Referring to staff’s plans for a series of public meeting to discuss planning alternatives, Bloom said, “I see this as a consensus building process.”

Bloom, like Interim Director of the Planning Department Andy Agle, was concerned that identifying goals and values before doing an objective analysis might “preordain…an outcome.”

Agle tried to explain to the council that such an analysis would identify conflicts or necessary choices among the “broad goals” already identified in the planning documents.

But Genser was adamant.

Genser referred back to former Planning Commissioner Geraldine Kennedy’s remarks during public comment.

“I read every word of (the documents) and my thought is that there’s no there there,” she told the Council. “The alternatives presented to you have no content.”

“It’s too open. Everything’s getting analyzed,” Genser said. “You might spend time analyzing…terrible alternatives.”

Taking “modest growth” as a likely goal of most residents, Genser wanted to know “what does that mean on the ground?”

Former mayor Jim Conn tried to put the debate over growth into historical perspective.

He pointed out that when he was elected 25 years ago, the new council majority made sweeping changes to the way the City handled development.

Their goal was to “try to get a handle on the growth of the city,” something residents are still asking for, he said.

“Some of the vision for the future of this city would require people to move to Wyoming or someplace,” Conn said. “Because this is Southern California, and it’s never going to be the way it was 25 years ago or 50 years ago.”

He advocated affordable housing and mixed use zoning so Santa Monica doesn’t turn into “an upper middle class enclave by the beach.”

Many of the public comments addressed specific issues, such as the need for open space, alternative transportation and community services like childcare centers.

The “neighborhood centers” scenario, in which amenities would be located within walking and bicycling distance of most residents, was popular with many speakers.

One topic that got a lot of discussion, both by the public and by the Council, was affordable housing, paired with the need to limit commercial development.

More than once, the council was reminded that the residential population in the city has declined since 1980, while rush-hour traffic has gotten much worse, implying that most of the traffic problems plaguing the city are the result of commercial development that draws outsiders.

There seemed to be a consensus that limiting commercial growth while providing State-mandated affordable housing would reduce congestion and result in the “diversity of ideas and ideals” that characterizes the ideal Santa Monica.

Staff was directed to come back “soon” with its new plans. The next City Council meeting will be on February 14.

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