Santa Monica Lookout
|New Santa Monica Downtown Development Plan Spurs More Worries
By Niki Cervantes
November 22, 2016 -- After eight months of trying to gage public sentiment, Santa Monica City planners face claims of discrimination against Hispanics, worries about long-term tenants losing their rent-controlled units and lingering questions about the biggest downtown projects in the development pipeline.
The newest iteration of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) notes that outreach showed no clear consensus on the thorniest issue: How high and dense should large-scale development be?
A survey conducted during the process, however, found a majority of the estimated 900 participants didn’t support heights of up to 130 feet for “established large scale projects.”
Instead, those sites should stick to the traditional 84-foot (or 7 stories) limit, respondents said.
Staff made no recommendation on that point, leaving unresolved the fates of a trio of highrise projects downtown, including “The Plaza,” a proposed 12-story, 420,000-square-foot development on City owned land at 4th and 5th Street and Arizona Avenue.
The new draft DCP was publicly unveiled at the City Planning Commission’s meeting last Wednesday. After hours of discussion, the plan was continued to the panel’s next meeting, on December 7.
But the meeting didn’t feature the plan’s usual foes from the slow-growth movement.
Instead, workers at downtown hotels and their union representatives showed up to report they were never contacted during the outreach campaign ("Santa Monica Hotel Union Urges Taller Buildings After Victory," November 18, 2016).
A spokesperson for a union that represents about 500 Santa Monica hotel workers said members were bypassed by an online survey that found 60 percent of self-identified City residents didn’t favor exceeding the existing 84-foot height cap for big projects.
Another 52 percent who said they live downtown wanted the same limit. Among visitors, 52 percent did not support the higher projects.
Only workers in Santa Monica supported taller projects.
Nearly “70 percent” would be amenable to heights above 84 feet, the report said.
About 900 people participated.
Peter James, the principal planner who detailed the new report for the commission, acknowledged some people could have been missed in the outreach effort, saying bilingual translators at meetings, for instance, were not used.
But he defended the months of work by the Department of Planning and Community Development and communications employees.
It was an unprecedented effort, he said. Although it relied on the internet, the outreach program also included reaching people in public places such as farmers’ markets, he said.
“We poured ourselves into it,” he said.
Another worry expressed at the meeting was the Downtown Plan's impact on the dwindling number of longtime tenants in rent-controlled units and on adjacent streets.
Of 1,300 rent-controlled units in or near downtown, slightly fewer than 400 still have extremely low rents, mostly because the tenants in them never moved, which would have cleared the way for market-rate rents.
Those tenants -- mostly elderly people living on social security -- haven’t been impacted by the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to go out of the rental business and re-open five years later at market rates.
“When you’ve got seven-story buildings going up all around you, they (longtime tenants) are going to be ‘Eliised’,” said Caroline Torosis , who was elected to the Rent Control board earlier this month. “We need to look at how their lives are going to be impacted.”
Although she said she was not formally representing the Rent Control Board, Torosis was asked by the commission, and agreed, to have a more in-depth analysis prepared for future discussion.
Scott Schonfeld, a developer who sits on the board of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), noted that many respondents to the online questionnaire wanted more public space, but also opposed increasing building heights.
“You can’t increase open space and cut height too,” he said.
Several speakers said the survey should not have been given so much weight because it was not scientifically conducted.
They noted that one person could have participated several times and that there was no way to guarantee that participants were even linked to Santa Monica.
Others thought the questions were vague or confusing and one activist said the entire outreach process was more like the marketing of a product than a query into the community’s attitudes.
The findings “need to be taken with a grain of salt,” said Mary Marlow, a member of the watchdog group, Transparency Project, who was active in the outreach effort.
Meanwhile, some commissioners were still worried about some of the plan's assumptions, including that the City’s goal of “no net increase” in evening rush hour traffic can be accomplished despite the 3.22 million square feet in net new development potentially allowed under the DCP through 2030 ("Nearly 3.8 Million Square Feet Await Approval in Santa Monica's Jammed Development Pipeline," November 3, 2016).
“We keep rubber stamping these projects,” said Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi.
Francie Stefan, the City’s Mobility Manager, said 60,100 vehicles are on Santa Monica streets weekdays between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., the evening rush hours -- a baseline set about 15 years ago.
She said the City proposes to avert creating more traffic primarily by re-orienting the population toward transportation other than cars.
City Manager Rick Cole also appeared before the commission to allay worries.
Traffic was jammed downtown this summer due of construction of major projects like the Esplanade and reconstruction of the California Incline, he said
“This has all literally happened in the last 12 months,” he said.
He promised a “new convergence” of multimodality that will keep gridlock from worsening in the face of more development.
“There are going to be astonishing changes,” Cole said.
Projects for downtown that have also prompted opposition are the renovation of the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel, a 568,940 square foot proposal that called for a 320-foot-tall tower before being pulled for redesign, and a Frank Gehry-designed hotel, which would include 338,695 square feet and reach a height of 255 feet under its current proposal.
Over eight months, staff held more than 32 community meetings, including small focus groups, and relied extensively on input from its DCP website, www.downtownsm.org, which involved 8,700 separate users interested in the process, the staff report said.
Staff said the public did seem to support the DCP’s strategy of concentrating height and density around the Expo line. More than 35 percent of those contacted choose more public spaces as their top priority, compared 30 percent who thought affordable housing was most needed.
Only 17 percent selected pedestrian/bike improvements.
Other changes proposed in the new DCP draft include hiking fees to help finance more construction of affordable housing, a goal the City has had great difficulty reaching, and expanding downtown preservation with an overlay district covering the historic core.
The plan, put on the backburner until after this month’s general election, goes to the council for a final vote in the spring ("Vote on Santa Monica Downtown Plan Delayed Yet Again," March 31, 2016).
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