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Vote on Santa Monica Downtown Plan Delayed Yet Again
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes and Jorge Casuso

March 31, 2016 -- The City has once again delayed final action on a blueprint for future development in Downtown Santa Monica that has been in the making for more than six years, officials announced this week.

After some two dozen workshops, formal discussions and hearings, the draft “Downtown Community Plan,” formerly called the Specific Plan, will now go to the City Council next spring, instead of this summer, said City Manager Rick Cole.

“This is a key planning document and we have to get it right,” Cole said in a statement issued this week. “From the outset, I’ve emphasized the importance of reaching consensus to guide Downtown development in the years ahead.

"The initial feedback from both the Planning Commission and community voices underscores the importance of thoroughly understanding and analyzing the policies that will go into the plan.”

The move comes in the midst of a contentious battle over several major developments proposed for the Downtown that helped spur a proposed ballot measure that would require voter approval for most developments citywide taller than 32 feet.

The timing of the delay quickly caught the attention of the city’s slow-growth leaders who noted Cole’s decision came as four of the City Council’s seven members face re-election in November.

“If you were a council person, would you want to defend that plan, which is indefensible to begin with, in a campaign?” said Diana Gordon, a leader of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, one of two citywide groups opposed to the plan.

City officials, developers and community groups, Gordon said, already have held dozens of meetings on the plan, but the slow-growth camp and others still find it little changed and largely unpalatable. The plan would set the stage for a “Manhattan, without the subway,” she added.

“The City is just going to keep coming back until we give up,” Gordon said. “But they haven’t converted us yet. They’re just giving lip service to our concerns.”

Armen Melkonians, the leader of Residocracy, the slow growth group behind the proposed Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative to curb development, also suspects election-time politics are behind the delay ("Slow-Growth Group Ties Development to Electorate," February 19, 2016).

But he predicted that postponing the Council's vote on the Downtown plan would help build awareness for the peoposed initiative, which the group has been circulating in an effort to gather the 6,500 valid signatures needed to make the November ballot.

The more talk about development, Melkonians said, the more signatures the group will gather on the petitions, which it hopes to begin tallying next week. “It’s good for LUVE,” he said.

The City Council deadline for a vote this summer, he added, “was too aggressive to begin with.”

Two of the four incumbents facing re-election -- Mayor Pro tem Ted Winterer and Council member Terry O’Day -- have publicly opposed LUVE, while Mayor Tony Vazquez and Gleam Davis have so far remained silent on the issue ("Proposed LUVE Initiative Getting Little Support from Santa Monica Council Members," March 9, 2016).

It was not clear why the decision to delay a vote on the Downtown Plan was made by th City Manager and not the Council, particularly since it dictates when a vote will be taken.

“I was not part of this decision,” said Council member Kevin McKeown.

Other Council members and Cole were contacted by The Lookout but did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The Downtown draft plan was presented to the Planning Commission earlier this month and was expected to return for further review in May.

The proposed plan “defines a similar building form to what exists today” in Downtown, staff wrote in its report to the Commission. In addition, the plan clarifies housing bonuses and addresses “more flexible building standards."

The plan maintains a maximum heights of 50 to 60 feet, and up to 84 feet in the urban core, staff wrote in its report. Building heights would be lower at the edges of the Downtown area where it transitions into the surrounding neighborhoods.

The draft plan also requires an increase in the number of affordable housing units that developers would have to include in their projects.

The plan presented to the Commission at its March 2 meeting was opposed by both Santa Monica slow-growth groups, and Planning Commissioners were unable to agree on a new height allowance to recommend to the council
("Downtown Santa Monica Plan will 'Open Floodgates' to Major Development," March 8, 2016).

Drafting the newly-renamed “Downtown Community Plan” has been a lengthy effort to update the 1996 Bayside District Specific Plan.

While the plan is being drafted, the Council has approved a temporary plan that has been extended several times, the latest extension having been granted last August ("Downtown Santa Monica Specific Plan to be Temporarily Extended," June 4, 2016.

The proposed "Downtown Community Plan" seeks both to retain and heighten the famous city’s ambiance Downtown, which is already a sometimes contradictory mix of sunny, laid-back charm and car-clogged streets.

Cole announced that a three-part speaker series will kick off in early May regarding “place making” in Downtown, followed by a second speaker event and Planning Commission-hosted community workshop on “preservation and change” in mid-June.

A third speaker event on the “future of mobility” in Santa Monica is scheduled for early August. A dozen focus groups are scheduled to convene between May and August, with as many as 20 participants per session.

The City will also conduct digital surveys during the speaker events and focus groups, the statement said.

“Everyone agrees on a large majority of the Plan—open space, arts and culture, transportation enhancements and historic preservation as a priority—but we need to spend more time on the vital issues of urban design,” said David Martin, who heads the City's Planning and Community Development Department.

“With these added months we can really dig into these areas and get people thinking and sharing what they’d like to see for the Downtown.”

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