Santa Monica Lookout
The Changing Face of Santa Monica's Planning Commission
By Jason Islas
March 12, 2013 -- With Santa Monica facing an unprecedented 35 pending development agreements (DAs), including three towers each over 20-stories tall, many are wondering where the City's second-most powerful body will fall when it comes to he flood of development.
Over the last decade, the Commission has shifted from being a staunchly anti-growth commission dominated by community activists to one with two architects that was widely viewed as more friendly toward development.
“Over the years, the Planning Commission has reflected the duality of Santa Monica,” said former mayor and planning commissioner Paul Rosenstein, who served on the Council from 1992 to 2000.
The Commission could be entering a new phase with the arrival of attorney Sue Himmelrich who was appointed as a commissioner after her testimony led four Council members to vote to rescind a development agreement for the Village Trailer Park that had been approved a month earlier.
While Himmelrich testified that the development failed to meet affordable housing standards, it is still unclear what her position on general development will be.
Himmelrich's appointment came after the City Council named Richard McKinnon and Amy Anderson to replace architects Gwynn Pugh and Hank Koning. Both stepped down after the City Attorney began enforcing a State conflict of interest law that bans board and commission members from entering into business contracts with the City.
Architect Michael Felonis, former chair of the Architectural Review Board, who had been eying a seat on the Planning Commission, also had to step down due to the conflict of interest law.
McKinnon, who was backed by anti-growth groups in a 2012 Council bid, describes himself as a believer in “responsible growth.”
"I feel that the makeup of the Planning Commission is such that there are a significant number of voices that may give developers some difficulty getting projects approved," Rosenstein said.
Some are skeptical that the new appointments will do much to change the general direction of the commission, which is still seen by some as development-friendly.
Kelly Olsen, who led the Commission during the peak of its anti-growth phase between 1999 to 2003, believes that though there may be one or two new faces, there will never be a anti-growth majority.
“They'll always have one or two people in there,” he said, referring to commissioners with an anti-growth bent.
“They will not put enough in to make a majority,” said Olsen, who served on the Council between 1990 and 1994.
“It's the Wild West,” he said, with officials telling developers “We want as much development as possible.”
Former mayor Michael Feinstein, who cast the deciding vote not to reappoint Olsen to the Commission in 2003, believes that today's commission strikes a good balance. Feinstein was on the Council from 1996 to 2004.
“I actually think we've gotten the best of both worlds," said Feinstein, who served on the Council from 1996 to 2004. "After that turbulent time, we've ended up with a series of people” with diverse backgrounds. He added that there could be room for architects on the board.
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