Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica Residents Sound Off after City Council Decision on Building Heights
By Jason Islas
August 16, 2013 -- Community activists and leaders had mixed reactions to the Council's vote Tuesday to limit the heights of proposed developments it would study under the nascent Downtown Specific Plan.
Amid controversy, the Council decided to study buildings no taller than 84 feet as part of the Plan it will take up early next spring.
With Tuesday's vote, the Council assured that any developers hoping to build taller than the proposed height limits would have to conduct their own legnthy and costly environmental impact report (EIR) mandated by the state. (“Santa Monica Won't Study Additional Height in Downtown Plan Environmental Review,” August 14)
Former mayor Paul Rosenstein, who recently came out against developing tall buildings in the bayside city's downtown district, said he was happy with Tuesday's decision.
“I think the Council sent a clear message to developers that we cherish our existing limits,” he said. “Any developer that wants to go beyond that and build higher buildings will have to really justify to the community why they should be able to do that.”
Under State law, the City Council will not be able to approve height or density limits in the Plan that haven't been studied in an EIR.
Still, developers who want to build taller than approved limits can pay for their own project-specific EIR and apply for a site-specific amendment to the Plan.
Susan McCarthy, a former Santa Monica city manager, said she was more disappointed by how acrimonious the debate had become than the decision itself.
“While my preference would have been that Council study greater height in the EIR, what concerns me more is that it has not been possible to disagree civilly about height and density,” she said.
“There are intelligent people of good will on both sides of the issue, motivated by no more than their love for their community and hopes for its future. City Council Members are among them,” she said.
Proponents of allowing taller and denser buildings at certain sites downtown weren't all upset by Tuesday's vote.
“The Council decision allows each site to be studied on a case-by-case basis and evaluated based on its own merits,” said Scott Schonfeld, a managing partner with Centennial Real Estate Company.
Schonfeld circulated a petition earlier this summer calling for the Council to study higher limits at those specific sites.
“They are not saying that all opportunity sites are limited,” he said. “You need to show in a project-specific EIR the additional height is warranted.”
That's something that concerned former mayor Mike Feinstein, a vocal opponent of three proposed hybrid hotel-condo projects along Ocean Avenue which range between 195 feet and more than 300 feet.
“We gave away some of the control of the process (Tuesday) night by choosing not to study under our terms any additional height,” he said.
City staff had recommended the EIR study height limits between 120 and 135 feet at eight “opportunity” sites Downtown.
“I believed it made sense study what staff recommended and only what staff recommended,” he said, adding that because owners of those sites -- including the City, which owns about half of them -- can still apply to build up, he worries Tuesday's vote will lead to “false sense of security.”
Even so, some called Tuesday's vote a victory.
"Finally, a Downtown Plan that will reflect height limits in LUCE and impose a very high burden on developers to justify projects higher than 84 feet,” said Diana Gordon, founder of Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City, a powerful slow-growth advocacy group.
“No more projects with faux community benefits, greatly exaggerated claims of city revenues and negligible traffic impacts,” she said.
Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Phil Brock said, “I believe it's a good start and I'm glad that the Council showed moderation in its views.”
He added, “Our community needs to continue to be unique and needs to continue to be that breath of fresh air and ocean.”
Not everyone opposed to height celebrated the Council's decision.
Reinhard Kargl, vice chair of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition, said, “The City Council is generally more in tune with the wishes of Downtown Santa Monica Inc, but hopelessly out of touch with what Santa Monica residents would have wanted their downtown to be.”
He called the decision to not study heights above 84 feet Tuesday a "no brainer," adding, “The chances of Santa Monica residents approving greater building heights are nil, so the City Council shouldn't even toy with the idea.”
The Project will likely not be ready for approval until spring 2014, after the EIR is completed and another draft is thoroughly vetted by the Planning Commission.
With the fate of the final Downtown Specific Plan still a long way from being decided, one thing is certain: Santa Monica is not done talking about height.
“This shouldn't remove anybody's concerns that there would be Council support” for tall projects, Feinstein said.
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