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Final Arguments Start in Bitter Battle Over Downtown Santa Monica's Future
By Niki Cervantes
July 11, 2017 -- Rivals in the long, bitter battle over downtown Santa Monica's future began final arguments Monday, split by a call for a central public park and recommendations for more hotels, businesses and, especially, more housing.
More than 150 people asked to speak at the special hearing on the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), and the showdown was expected to lapse into the City Council’s meeting tonight. A final council vote is scheduled for July 25.
Six years in the making, the final draft of the DCP paves the way for more multi-family housing, mostly in five to-seven story apartment complexes near transit stops, and three hotel/mixed-use projects as tall as 130 feet on select sites ("Santa Monica Downtown Plan Seeks to Strike a Compromise, Officials Say, But Some Remain Skeptical," April 13, 2017).
Although the plan envisions a denser downtown to accommodate growth, City planners say no new net increase in traffic will result because they anticipate more people will use alternative transit, including the Expo Line, buses, biking or walking.
From local hotel employees to workers in high-tech sector, many speakers focused on the need for more housing downtown. They said the lack of housing was fueling sky-high market-rate rents.
Even higher-income employees in Santa Monica couldn’t find a place they could afford to rent, some said.
“Downtown is out of our reach,” said one computer programmer who had been looking for an apartment with her fiancé, who is also in the same profession.
Opponents of the plan, primarily from the city’s slow growth movement, had no complaints specifically about the proposed housing or the 15 percent to 20 percent reserved as affordable in the DCP.
But they contend the plan is too quick to ease up on scrutiny –- including the public’s -- of the impact of new building.
They also are unconvinced of the assumption that enough people will use alternative transit, such as the Expo Light Rail Line that debuted last spring, to prevent an increase in Downtown Santa Monica’s notorious gridlock.
One speaker, a longtime Santa Monica resident, said he is “appalled by the seemingly endless overdevelopment” of the city over the last decade and more.
Adding 3.2 million square feet in new development allowed under the plan “will make today’s downtown gridlock like a dream by comparison,” said resident Philip Schwartz.
Critics of the plan, which include neighborhood associations and City Hall watchdog groups, pressed for a public park at the site of the proposed 12-story “Plaza at Santa Monica” on City-owned land ("Slow-Growth Activists Girding for Fight Against "Plaza at Santa Monica," February 28, 2017).
They argue that City officials back the 358,000 square-foot project -- which includes a 280-room hotel, low-income housing and green public spaces -- because it would generate much-needed revenue in the form of bed taxes ("Santa Monica Bed Taxes Pumped Nearly $51 Million into City Coffers Last Year, Report Says," May 12, 2017).
Although several public parks are near downtown, including Palisades Park just west of Ocean Avenue, they note that none are within its borders.
Not including a public park in the plan is its “most glaring omission,” said John Cyrus Smith, the chair of the City Recreation and Parks Commission.
The commission has asked for a public park on two-thirds of the nearly 3-acre site.
“We must seize the opportunity,” Smith told the council.
Rejecting a park downtown, he said, will anger the electorate enough to endanger a discussed public vote on a bond for improvements at City parks.
Business organizations aligned with a group of local clergy members, unionized hotel workers and others supported the DCP, although they also favored more building, not less.
Clergy members wanted more jobs and more affordable housing –- the segment of housing where the region’s housing shortage is most critical.
Christina Navarro, an employee at a nearby hotel, said she supported the DCP’s proposed 130-foot height cap because the larger the hotel, the more jobs it will offer.
“They are important for working families and for the coming generations,” she told the council. “It is very important because it brings more good quality jobs and benefits for the community.”
And the business community said the Los Angeles metropolitan area is becoming more competitive about luring jobs, commerce and tourists.
Downtown is already the city’s major “economic engine,” said Laurel Rosen, the chief executive officer of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.
It must continue to be competitive for the city to flourish, she said.
“The equation is simple," Rosen said. "Successful businesses equal successful cities.”
The DCP covers development until 2030.
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