Building Heights Stir Debate
By Jorge Casuso
July 3 -- While a vision for Santa Monica’s future
has been slowly taking shape over the past four years, a key question
cast a long shadow over the City Council’s deliberations Tuesday:
How tall is too tall?
That question will likely be the center of the remaining debate as the council
puts the finishing touches on the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element
(LUCE), a document that will set the blueprint for all future development in
the 8.3-square-mile city.
If Tuesday’s discussion -- which took place with two of the
seven council members missing -- is any indication, an answer won’t
be easy to come by. At least two council members openly questioning
how the City's Planning staff came to propose buildings that could
rise as high as 68 feet.
“I think this draft is way off base for this city, and it’s not
what people wanted, (which is) to preserve the scale of this city,” said
Council member Ken Genser.
“Development is already out of scale of the community,” said Council
member Kevin McKeown. “I’m afraid that people who live here are
already losing their neighbors and neighborhoods.”
The plan presented by City staff – which planners said is the result
of nine Planning Commission meetings and countless community workshops –
calls for taller developments with affordable housing in designated parts of
The plan would concentrate new development near public transit nodes such as
future light rail stations, encourage walking by providing neighborhood-serving
uses in strategic locations and charge developers mitigation fees to bankroll
special districts to manage traffic with the goal of creating “no new
net car trips.”
To fuel the necessary development, staff is proposing allowing property owners
to “economically develop their land and create the kinds of public benefits
we’re talking about,” said consultant Robert Odermatt.
“A city is a very viable kind of organism,” said Odermatt.
“They grow, they renew themselves, they adapt to change of
philosophy, and, if you don’t change, you’ll go down.”
Some council members weren’t buying the argument.
“For many people in this community, change for change’s own sake
is not very attractive,” McKeown said. “People are more interested
in what exactly we’re changing into.”
McKeown and Genser dismissed fears expressed by Planning Director Eileen Fogarty
based on her tenure in Alexandria, Virginia, where she said “property
owners were willing to sit on properties for ten to 15 years and do nothing.”
“Things don’t stagnate in Santa Monica,” Genser countered.
“We are in a booming part of the Westside with lots of regional
"We shouldn't have to trade for what we want," said McKeown,
referring the taller building heights. "We're a very special
place. People desperately want to be here."
But some council members indicated they wouldn’t oppose taller developments
in the designated areas along the main boulevards.
“I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination anything
that has been proposed is significant overbuilding,” said
Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom, who chaired the meeting.
Council member Bob Holbrook said he was shocked by the prospect
that “if the commercial boulevards don’t change, it’ll
eventually turn into a dead zone.”
“I’m a little bit concerned,” Holbrook said. “What
is the impact if an area stays the same? Does it affect the vitality of the
area? The revenues of the City?
“Some amount of growth is reasonable, and I want to see what that is.”
Holbrook pointed to the successful transition of Montana Avenue
from a sleepy street with several gas stations to a bustling strip
for high-end shoppers, prompting Genser to remind the council that
the avenue likely has the strictest commercial development standards
in the city.
Genser worried that by continuing to consider a 48-foot height
base, the council would be fueling the fears of residents who oppose
LUCE and support the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT),
which would set caps on development.
“I think we have to take some of this stuff off the table,” Genser
said. “I understand why people say staff wasn’t listening.
“We were listening, because much of the framework is very
good,” he said. “But what it misses is the scale. The
scale is out of whack.”