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Santa Monica to Look to Smaller Developments for Community Benefits
By Jason Islas
August 27, 2012 -- Developers interested in building mid-sized projects in Santa Monica may soon be presented with a menu of community benefits they would be required to meet.
On Wednesday, the Planning Commission heard a report that suggested implementing a system that would present developers interested in building Tier 2 developments with a menu of community benefits from which to pick, each with a corresponding point value.
“The point system," said Vivian Kahn, a consultant with Dyett & Bhatia Urban and Regional Planners, allows developers with conditional use permits (CUPs) to decide on community benefits when they "don't want to spend the time that you need to build the benefits from the ground up in a development agreement.”
The preliminary plan would lay out a list of possible community benefits -- affordable housing, streetscape improvements, alternative energy infrastructure -- with corresponding points. Developers hoping to build a Tier 2 building would choose a number of benefits from the menu until they reach a predetermined point value.
According to Kahn, the menu system is the preferred system in many cities where there are codified demands from developers for community benefits, including Chicago, Portland and Berkeley.
As it stands, community benefits are required for any developers building Tier 3 projects, which are the largest developments allowed by the City zoning codes.
But individual developers negotiate what those benefits will be through the development agreement process, is is lengthy and consumes City resources.
A menu system would allow the City to get community benefits from smaller developments without having to institute a development agreement process for them as well.
But that raised some questions for the Planning Commission.
“The nub of this whole issue is how valuable is Santa Monica and who sets the values,” said Commissioner Richard McKinnon. “The whole community benefits question is about value.”
McKinnon argued that as a developer increases the size of a project, that developer also increases the value of that project and could therefore be asked to contribute a more valuable community benefit.
Kahn contended that the question of value was less about the developers' monetary gain.
“I think what we'd be looking at is if you get ten additional feet of development, how many more people will live in that building or how many more people will work in that building,” she said.
“That's what we're looking at: How much park do you need based on the demand that's going to be imposed on the City's system by allowing an additional increment of development?”
“But also how important is it to the City to have parks versus having affordable housing,” Kahn added.
Commissioner Ted Winterer worried that the system could have some possible shortcomings.
“What happens when we get through this sort of system and we get too much of one kind of community benefit?” he asked.
For example, Winterer said, what if most developers opted to build shared parking? “At a certain point, you can have more shared parking than there is demand."
Kahn responded that there would have to be some monitoring, such as occasional community input sessions, built into the system to assure that the community benefits are actually what the community wants and needs.
Commissioner Jim Ries was glad to see a system that would seek community benefits from smaller developments.
“I think Tier 2 should be the preferred approach," said Ries, referring to the kinds of buildings the City should be encouraging. "I think Tier 3 should be very rare, and it should come with a heavy price tag.”
With the loss of Redevelopment Agencies in California, Santa Monica has lost much of its funding for affordable housing development, both Commissioners Jason Perry and Winterer pointed out.
As a result, the City is looking more toward private developers to help pay for affordable housing.
The proposed plan is still in preliminary stages, Kahn said. The point system presented in the report, she added, was just an example and many questions about the relative value of benefits still need to be addressed.
The Commission will look at the plan again several times before it goes before the council for approval.
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