Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica Wrestles with Tall Buildings
THE MAYORS CHALLENGE
By Jason Islas
March 5, 2013 -- As developers are looking to build up in Santa Monica's Downtown, residents have begun asking themselves, how high is too high for the beachside community.
With Santa Monica looking at three projects that would be the tallest buildings built in the bayside City in three decades, it has become a pressing question.
Last week, architect Frank Gehry revealed plans for a 244-foot tower at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue and in late February, developers behind the Miramar redevelopment project unveiled a new plan that would put a 261-foot tower along Ocean Avenue north of Wilshre Boulevard.
In November, FelCor Lodging Trust, which owns the Holiday Inn on Colorado and Second Street, approached City staff about remodeling the site to include a tower nearly 200 feet tall.
“The City has had a love-hate relationship with height,” said Sharon Gilpin, a former Planning Commissioner and architect of Proposition S, a 1989 ballot measure that banned building new hotels near the beach.
Before Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights won a majority on the City Council in the early 1980s, many of Santa Monica's tall buildings, like the 300-foot 100 Wilshire building had been built.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there had been “a spurt of high-rises” built, according to Council member Kevin McKeown.
The two Pacific Shores Towers on the coast in Ocean Park as well as the 13-story bank plaza at Fourth Street and Wilshire were both projects built during that period.
Aside from being a renters' rights organization, “(SMRR) had also come to be the slow-growth political organization,” said Dennis Zane, one of SMRR's founding members.
In the early 1980s, a number of residents had decided that they didn't want more tall buildings in the City.
“I think that for most people, it represents an unraveling of the character of the community,” he said.
In 2004, residents -- and the Council -- rejected a proposal by Santa Monica Place owner Macerich to build three 21-story condo towers, an apartment building, an office complex and a park above a podium of stores because of the height and size of the development.
When it comes to height, “balance is the key,” Gilpin said.
“Height is not necessarily horrible if you can gain open space on the ground,” she said, but too much height can be “dehumanizing.”
“People want a human-scaled city,” Gilpin said.
But there are other concerns.“I think what people are really concerned about are the mass, traffic and environmental concerns,” she said.
There is also the question of where the height should go, if it should go anywhere at all.
“Height along the ocean-front is a particularly sensitive issue in Santa Monica,” McKeown said. He referred to Proposition S, which restricts hotels from building west of Ocean Avenue.
“The three proposals raised recently all are JUST landward of the Ocean Avenue boundary, and are destined to be controversial,” he said.
Former Mayor Michael Feinstein agreed.
“As a person who's at the beach all the time, I'm not very excited about seeing tall buildings along Ocean Avenue,” he said.
Still, Feinstein said he's not opposed to height in general.
“The question is, is there a cap at some point to the scale we want our community to be in,” he said. “Assuming there's some sort of general cap, how many exceptions are OK before they undermine the balance?”
That “cap” would be set in Santa Monica's new Downtown Specific Plan, currently being worked on.
“The LUCE sets height limits throughout the city, with the exception of downtown,” said McKeown. “All three of these new projects depend in part on how much height is ultimately allowable under the Downtown Specific Plan, now in discussion.”
It is likely that developers of the new Gehry building and the Miramar redevelopment project are going to face opposition proposing buildings of these heights.
“I think the community will react very adversly to them,” said Zane, not only because of their heights but also “what it portends for the future.”
Whether or not any more buildings of these heights get built in Santa Monica is a “precedent-setting question,” he said.
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