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Setting Benefits for Development

By Jorge Casuso

July 8, 2009 -- What “community benefits” would Santa Monica residents, many of them opposed to most development, be willing to accept in exchange for allowing taller buildings?

The answer -- according to many of the more than 150 residents attending a City workshop Tuesday night -- included more affordable housing, historic preservation and youth programs. Although practically everyone agreed more “workforce housing” was needed, they said the term needed to be better defined.

But many argued that no amount of benefits could outweigh the traffic congestion they fear will be created under the City’s proposed update to the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE, which would grant developers height bonuses in exchange for community benefits.

“There are no development alternatives,” said Mary Marlow, a neighborhood activist and member of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, which showed up to the special Planning Commission meeting in force.

“But what if we said no? We don’t want any more. We really want to slow it down,” Marlow said.

“We do not want any increased height and density on Wilshire,” said Gale Feldman, a member of one of eight workshop groups that met for an hour to discuss the plan.

Marlow and Feldman’s comments were met with much applause.

Feldman was referring to an example of an activity center that could go up on the corner of 14th Street and Wilshire Boulevard under the proposed LUCE update, which City officials have been hammering out for three years.

During a power-point presentation that opened the meeting, City officials tried to assure residents that the LUCE would allow little new development and would be tied to an innovative traffic plan that would generate “no new car trips” in Santa Monica.

A map flashed on the screen showing areas that would not be changed under the proposed LUCE update, which will guide development in Santa Monica for the next quarter century. One by one, new areas that would remain the same popped up on the screen.

With a final click appeared the only areas that would allow more development. The areas were concentrated on boulevards near public transit, where developers would be encouraged to build large mixed used projects with neighborhood serving businesses and plenty of open space.

“We have listened to you and have incorporated strategies,” Daniel Iacofano, a planning consultant for the city, told the standing room crowd gathered at the east wing of the Civic Auditorium.

“We’ll take a pause and determine, ‘Are we on track, or are we off track?’” he said. “Market forces will help determine that. We can’t predict exactly the future.”

Iacofano called Tuesday’s workshop “the most technically complex and wonkish,” but also “the most important” of the numerous LUCE workshops help by the City.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a traffic consultant, said that the new developments would generate impact fees “to fund transportation alternatives” that would keep traffic within Santa Monica at its current rate.

“If that doesn’t work, there’s always the option of putting the brakes on” development, Tumlin said.

But some residents argued that the transportation alternatives – which include handing out free bus passes and giving worker bonuses for biking or carpooling to work – weren’t enough, and that other benefits, such as affordable housing, are already required by City law and can be expanded with stricter requirements.

“The benefits talked about were generally kind of weak,” Marlow said. The LUCE needs “stronger requirements that really have more teeth in them.”

At the end of the meeting, Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer called for tougher requirements for developers.

“A lot of these things should be required,” he said of the benefits. Winterer, who as a City Council candidate championed a failed initiative last November that would have capped most commercial development, urged City officials to “change the zoning so these things are mandated.”

When it came to determining what benefits should be required, most of the groups agreed the City needs to preserve its buildings and character, could use more neighborhood shops and should boost its open space and bike lanes.

Addressing the parking and traffic crunch also was important, although few suggestions were made outside of halting development and sharing existing parking that goes unused, such as the surface lots at neighborhood churches, or adding underground parking.

One “community benefit” that kept cropping up was youth programs, which were pushed for by members of the Pico Youth and Family Center, three of whose members presented the findings for three of the eight workshop groups.

The motto for the group he was representing was “better neighborhoods, same neighbors,” said Oscar de la Torre, a School Board member who is executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center.

De la Torres then made the case for boosting youth services, employing Santa Monica residents and revitalizing Pico Boulevard by encouraging outdoor dining.

Planning Commissioner Hank Koenig closed the meeting by warning against placing too many restrictions on development, which he said helps bankroll the City’s “excellent public services.”

“Instead of saying, ‘No development but we want all of this stuff,’ you have to be realistic,” said Koenig, an architect who has designed several major buildings in the city.

“How can we do all this? Or are we dreaming?” he said. “This is the general plan that we’re establishing,” he concluded, noting that there were more options if the LUCE guidelines of the general plan were looser, rather than stricter, but that the zoning adopted after the LUCE could be more strict. .

Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson called for “pacing development in the city by rationing development.” Under his suggestion, residents would choose which developments should be given priority.

"What if we said no? We don’t want any more." Mary Marlow

“We have listened to you and have incorporated strategies.” Daniel Iacofano

“How can we do all this? Or are we dreaming?” Hank Koenig

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