Santa Monica Lookout
|Lengthy Meetings at Santa Monica’s Planning Commission Raise Concerns||
By Jason Islas
October 31, 2013 -- The Planning Commission is Santa Monica’s second most powerful body, charged with advising the City Council on the city’s most important development issues.
But, as it faces an unprecedented workload of complicated development agreements (DAs), and with a recent track record of spending multiple meetings -- and many hours -- on a single project, some worry that the seven-member Commission could bog down City business.
With a six-meeting marathon planned to start later this month for the Commission to discuss the City’s new zoning ordinance update, many of the Planning Commission’s important hearings on the dozens of pending development agreements -- including three major hotel projects -- will likely be pushed in the first quarter of next year.
"If the Commission takes the time they are talking about taking and they don't add any special meetings, then it's going to take forever to get through the business of the City," said Councilmember Terry O’Day.
"That's a real problem," he said. "I think we need to start searching for solutions."
Part of the problem, officials said, is that the projects the Planning Commission has to weigh-in on are larger than they have been in the past, like the 767,000 square-foot mixed-use project in the heart of Santa Monica's Bergamot neighborhood proposed by Texas developer Hines. (“Santa Monica Planning Commission to Vet Bergamot Transit Village Again,” September 11)
That project alone has gone before the Commission about six times in the last two years.
Another other issue is that in January, the Council voted to triple the amount of time the Commission has to consider projects from 30 to 90 days. ("Council Takes Steps Toward Dealing with Santa Monica Development Boom," January 11)
“To me, the Commission's 90-day time limit to consider projects is an improvement over the previous 30-day period because several of the projects the Commission has considered recently are complex Development Agreement projects,” said Planning Commission Chair Jennifer Kennedy.
The Commission has taken full advantage of the extended time to go more into depth during its discussion.
In July, the Commission sent developers proposing two small hotels in Downtown Santa Monica back to the drawing board. Commissioners told the developers they wanted higher wages for hotel workers and more environmentally-friendly designs. ("Santa Monica Planning Commission Wants More Commitment from Hotel Developer," July 26)
The Commission finally voted not to recommend the projects to the Council in October, just shy of the 90-day deadline. ("Planning Commission Won't Support Plans for Two Small Downtown Santa Monica Hotels," October 18)
Planning Commissioner Sue Himmelrich said that the main reason the Commission is taking its time is so that it can negotiate better projects.
“When we get these reports with all these outstanding issues, we feel compelled to resolve at least most of them before they go to the City Council,” she said.
She referred to the Commission as an “early warning system” for the Council.
The Commission, she said, wouldn’t have to take so long if there weren’t as many problems with the draft DAs that come before the Council, a phenomenon she blames on staff’s workload.
“They’re rushing,” Himmelrich said. “They have too much work to do.”
That doesn’t bode well for the upcoming back-to-back six meetings the Commission has planned for its zoning ordinance update discussion.
“If (the update is) as flawed as the recent DAs we’ve seen, there’s no way we can get through it in the” scheduled time, she said.
That means the process, which has to be completed before the Commission hears any other projects, might get pushed into February.
“If the first meeting to the sixth meeting takes three months, you can really lose the thread of what the discussion was about," O’Day said.
"They don't need to reach consensus on everything. In many cases, we just need to hear their advice," he said.
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