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Part I: Santa Monica's Three-Decade Battle with Height

Santa Monica Wellbeing ProjectTHE MAYORS CHALLENGE
City of Santa Monica Wellbeing Project

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

March 6, 2013-- Traveling west on Wilshire Boulevard, it's easy to notice when West Los Angeles ends and Santa Monica begins. Once you enter the beachside city, high-rises abruptly give way to quaint, low buildings, no taller than a couple stories.

The percipitious drop-off in building heights west of Centinela Avenue is the legacy of a 30-year tradition of neighborhood groups, political organizations and City Councils actively resisting developers' attempts to build up.

This resolve to reject tall buildings could be tested by three proposed projects that each exceed 20 stories -- the redevelopment of the Miramar hotel, a Frank Gehry-designed structure on Ocean Avenue and the redesign of the Holiday Inn on Colorado Avenue which has not yet been submitted to the City. All three projects would require development agreement due to their heights and sizes.

The move to keep Santa Monica's skyline close to the ground started when a new political group, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), managed to take a majority of the Council seats in 1981.

With the SMRR majority came a moratorium on commercial development and eventually, the 1984 General Plan. Crafted by the SMRR majority, the plan set a general three-story limit on buildings throughout the city, although later it allowed buildings in some areas to rise as high as 70 feet.

“There were a whole lot of projects that were proposed at the time,” said former mayor and long-time SMRR member Judy Abdo, referring to the Council's decision to impose a temporary moratorium on commercial development.

“There was clearly going to be a change in policy,” she said.

During the two previous decades, Santa Monica had seen several major buildings go up, including the 300-foot office building at 100 Wilshire, the twin 17-story Santa Monica Shores Towers and the 13-story bank plaza at Fourth Street and Wilshire Boulevard.

“The new majority reflected an alarm in the community,” said SMRR co-founder Dennis Zane. He said that not only were people worried about the number of projects but also about the size, and not necessarily just heights.

But it was the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project in the mid-1960s, which called for 14 towers , each nearly 20 stories tall along the ocean-front that mobilized the community. Residents of Ocean Park organized against the idea of building up. The project, as it was conceived then would have remade Santa Monica into something “kind of like Miami Beach,” said Abdo.

Consequently, only two 17-story towers -- known as the Santa Monica Shores -- were built along with the much shorter Sea Colony development.

“The community did not want the height,” she said. “They traded off a whole lot of things to bring the height down,” said Abdo. “In doing that, it meant that the number of units they were permitted to build was spread out over more land with less open space.”

Back then, Abdo said, there was no community process for big developments. “They were building whatever they wanted without any community input at all,” she said, adding that project approval was given by the Planning Department. And as the 1984 General Plan coalesced, so did the idea of community input.

“There were a number of community meetings” about the General Plan, Abdo said. “Big meetings where people came to testify.”
The end result was a plan that generally limited building heights to three stories or four, in special circumstances.

The precedent of community input that was set during the drafting of the 1984 General Plan would have long-lasting repercussions, including extensive public input sessions on major developments in the City.

Next: A major restaurateur proposes a luxury hotel on the beach and residents fight against a proposal to revamp the Santa Monica Place site.

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