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Council Takes Major Step in Charting the Future

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 16 – Many Santa Monicans may not know it yet, but a giant step was taken Tuesday to reshape the City for decades to come. Into what, though, is still unknown.

While the City Council unanimously approved the draft of the City’s key planning document, the Land Use and Circulation Element or LUCE, it left open an array of options that will dictate everything from the role of the major boulevards to the fate of its industrial areas.

Standing before the council, Santa Monica’s newly hired planning director, Eileen Fogarty, did not mince words on how to best tackle the controversial issue of growth dictated by the document.

“The next step is trade offs and choices,” a soft-spoken Fogarty firmly told the council, noting that from traffic and parking to building heights and future housing, much is at stake.

Given the goals fleshed out during two years of community workshops -- including competing visions of a low-slung livable beach town with severely needed housing -- there are going to have to be some sacrifices, she said.

“This will be the first time in 20 years for the council and community to have a full debate on where we are going,” Fogarty said, acknowledging that the topic is “sensitive” in the seaside city.

However, “this is the most important stage in the process,” Fogarty told the council members, who peppered her with questions on such issues as the fate of the local airport and the methodology of traffic counting.

The top planner in Alexandria Virginia, Fogarty took the reins in Santa Monica just as the City was updating a key section of the City’s General Plan, which dictates how the City grows, from traffic flow to building heights.

With her entrance came a shift -- and jumpstart -- in how the City crafts a blueprint for its future planning process, senior planning officials said.

Rather than providing three distinct models presenting larger conceptual visions of how Santa Monica will grow, City planners will present the community with several alternatives that include trade-offs and impacts, a process Fogarty told council members was akin to “building blocks.”

“I think a building block approach is better,” said Fogarty. “Each of the issues has numerous options.”

With the draft approved, the community will now begin narrowing the options, she said.

What will be the fate of the shrinking industrial areas? Should these areas become the next stop for a light-rail Downtown? Should light industry remain? What about housing in the area, or artists lofts?

And what about the major corridors in and out of the City -- such as Ocean Park, Wilshire and Lincoln boulevards. Do residents want to see them remain as major traffic arteries, or should they become more pedestrian friendly walkways lined with boutiques?

These are all questions that will, eventually, need to be answered, Fogarty said.

“You actually look at the corridor and ask, ‘Do you want to have all of this, or do you want some of the corridors to move the cars,” Fogarty said.

“You can have some of the things in some of the corridors, all of these things in some of the corridors, but you can’t have all of these things in all of the corridors.”

“Which corridors do we make more livable?” she asked rhetorically.

Yet, circulation is just one building block of the plan.

From keeping traffic flowing and determining the scale of buildings yet to be built, to keeping open-space open, the public wiill help decide what gets winnowed from future options, officials said.

And other challenges still lie ahead.

To get an honest consensus, Fogarty said the City will need to perform the Herculean feat of once again rounding up a truly broad-based group of residents.

”The real challenge is to go out and reenergize the public,” she said. “The success will depend on getting and keeping the involvement of people who have just everyday lives.”

Council member Ken Genser, along with Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor -- who were the top vote getters in last week’s council race -- traded barbs on the dais Tuesday about “special interest” groups that they said may try and influence the process.

Nearly 50 committees, organizations, commissions, boards, neighborhood groups and other stakeholders were consulted by the City in the past two years to gather input.

Yet only a handful of people spoke Tuesday on the important item, giving an indication of how far the City may have to go to rekindle interest in the issue.

While every council member agreed the “building block” approach is the right direction to take, several council members and residents expressed concerns about certain aspects of the process, perhaps foreshadowing future fights.

Two key points of contention were how the City counts traffic and when officials will tackle Santa Monica Airport, which, it was announced Tuesday, would not be dealt with until after the LUCE process is completed.

“The methods to measure traffic are seriously flawed,” said Council member Ken Genser, concurring with McKoewn. “A number of people have suggested we adopt a different type of methodology.”

Both council members wondered aloud if it was best to continue updating LUCE, while a debate over the methodology is still being waged.

Yet Fogarty and senior planning officials disagreed.

“I feel very strongly we do not need to do that,” said Fogarty, adding that many aspects of the plan can be moved along while the sticking point is worked out, but hinted it could cause a delay down the road.

“If we can find confidence in traffic…. if that can happen, we will be on a quicker schedule,” said Fogarty, who forecasted finishing LUCE by 2008 at the latest.

Another issue that took off at the draft meeting was the fate of Santa Monica Airport in Sunset Park, the neighborhood in the southeast side of the City, where resident anger has been growing along with jet traffic in the area.

Planners argue that the long-term planning of the airport should be addressed separately, but residents, who have long complained about noise and pollution, believe otherwise.

Whether the fate of the airport will be inserted into the plan as the City shapes its future – and what larger choices will be made in coming months – is still all up in the air.

 

 

 

 

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