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Downtown Santa Monica: The Heights of Inquiry

By Michael Feinstein

August 9, 2013 -- On August 13th, our City Council will vote upon what maximum building heights to study in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), which will guide downtown development for the next 20 years. Perhaps tops (pun intended) among controversial topics has been whether to amend the City's 30-year old, 84-foot height limit.

In response to an energetic community debate, City Staff has recommended that the maximum heights to be studied should remain at 84 feet for all of downtown, except for what have been called 'opportunity sites' -- eight parcels that because of their unique size and configuration, might theoretically present special opportunities for urban design and community benefits, in exchange for extra height. For those parcels, City Staff is recommending studying a range of maximums between 120 and 135 feet (the difference between the two to account for downtown's downward slope towards the ocean). Such maximums would not be achievable automatically 'by right', but would only come through a negotiated Development Agreement where the City Council determines they are justified in exchange for getting more benefits.

I support this recommendation. It strikes a fair balance between those who want to see greater heights and those who support the existing maximum, while still taking the question of tradeoffs for extra height seriously in limited cases.

For those who don't think this is high enough to study, its important to remember that what City Staff is recommending studying would be a 60% increase over current levels. That would be a radical increase, which has only been blurred by the extraordinary heights proposed for three luxury condo/hotel projects by property owners on opportunity sites along Ocean Ave.

Some who want to study these even greater heights as part of the DSP say we should “study all possible alternatives, in order to gather the most information.” I haven't found this convincing. Why not study 40 story buildings then? Or 50? We don't hear that from these same people.

Others argue that it would be acceptable to have maximum heights of 200 to 300 feet in the DSP, because the City Council can always still approve lower heights for each individual project. Many residents would be rightfully suspicious of any such DSP, because once such extraordinary heights are seen as acceptable maximums, the range of debate moves to a project's massing, aesthetics and community benefits, rather than whether it is too high. While its true that a portion of our community favors such extraordinary heights, they are no where near enough to make such heights a core part of the DSP.

Given this, while the property owners behind the three luxury condo/hotel projects have a legal right to ask for extraordinary height, I believe those heights need to be considered separately as potential exceptions to community maximums on height, not as consistent with them.

Conversely I believe a DSP that contained such heights would quickly and unnecessarily invite a referendum. It could also spawn a 'son of Prop T' - a local 2008 planning-by-ballot-box ballot measure that would have amended the city's Land Use element to put an annual limit upon commercial development. A new such measure could possibly be along the lines of what recently passed in Encinitas in San Diego County, that gave residents the right to vote on all projects over a certain height. There is also the possibility that such a DSP might even lead some residents to gather signatures for Councilmember recalls.

Do we really need this angst over a Specific Plan, rather than an actual project?

Even the law firm representing the three luxury condo/hotel projects proposed for Ocean Ave. state that these projects will need their own environmental review, separate from the DSP. Therefore we should leave well enough alone, and study these proposed heights in separate Environmental Impact Reports for the locations proposed, rather than including such heights generically in the DSP.

When these applicants are asking for extraordinary height, it also actually has little to do with building design or densifying downtown - the kind of things we care about in urban planning and would study in the PEIR - and almost everything to do with financing.

A building doesn't need to be 22 stories to be iconic. It can easily be just as iconic at 11 stories, with the right design and FAR (floor-to-area ratio, a measure of massing in urban planning). In all three Ocean Ave. projects, the upper portions are dedicated to multi-million dollar condominiums that would give investors a greater and faster rate of return. These are not transit oriented developments, as occupants are likely to own many cars. Nor are they meaningful tools to discourage urban sprawl, as those wanting to live in luxury high rises will otherwise seek such options in downtown Los Angeles, Century City or elsewhere. So its not like we are abandoning our commitment to confronting climate change, by not studying their proposed heights in the PEIR.

Rather, if we choose to commodify and monetize our skyline in these projects on a one time basis in exchange for a given set of extra community benefits -- something that I am personally very skeptical about at these extraordinary extra heights -- that is something that needs to be debated separately upon the merits of each project, and the question of extraordinary extra height not be given an advantage via already being contained in the DSP.

For all these reasons, (which I've also elaborated upon further in this video from this week's Planning Commission meeting), I encourage the Council to vote to study heights up to the Staff recommendation in the PEIR for the Downtown Specific Plan, but no higher.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember.

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