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Santa Monica Downtown Plan Seeks to Strike a Compromise, Officials Say, But Some Remain Skeptical  

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By Jorge Casuso

April 13, 2017 -- How do you find common ground between developers proposing 20-plus-story high-rises and slow-growth activists who want most buildings in Santa Monica's downtown to be no more than two stories tall?

City officials hope that the long-awaited final draft of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) released at a public meeting Wednesday evening will help bridge that often acrimonious gap. (To view the full plan click here.)

"We've put our best thinking and best work forward," City Planning Director David Martin told The Lookout. "It's not perfect, but we've taken everything we've heard and put the best plan forward."

The plan, which has been more than six-years in the making, would limit downtown development to buildings of four to five stories, but would allow high-rises on select sites, including the land around the new Downtown light rail station.

Buildings as tall as 84 feet would be allowed near the rail station on Colorado Avenue, as well as on three sites -- the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, a nearby site slated for a Frank Gehry-designed hotel and on the City owned land at 4th and 5th streets and Arizona -- without requiring a development agreement (DA).

With a DA, the structures at those three sites could rise as high as 130 feet, but would have to abide by the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) allowed for the 84-foot-tall projects.

Development agreements for those projects may need the support of a "super-majority" of the City Council (at least five members) or a vote by the public, or both, according to the plan.

"We haven't settled on what the best option would be," said Martin, adding that the council would make a decision when it reviews the DCP for final approval in July.

To help assure slow-growth advocates that the plan would not pave the way for other high-rises, the guidelines would remain in place for seven years, Martin said.

Some slow-growth advocates weren't sold on the plan. Nacy Coleman, who heads the neighborhood group North of Montana Association (NOMA), had plenty of reservations.

"It's still too much building," said Coleman, who noted that she was speaking for herself and that the group has not taken a position.

Allowing buildings to rise 130 feet in order to free up open space for public use won't work because the spaces won't be easily accessible, Coleman predicted.

"You cannot create public space in private (developments)," she said. "We're not going to have more open public space. I don't think we are going in the direction we needed to go."

Instead, Coleman said, the City should turn the City owned land at 4th and 5th and Arizona into a central public park.

Coleman also worries that developers will build to the maximum heights, replacing the exiting two-story rent-controlled garden apartments with four-and-five-story luxury buildings.

"If four and five stories is the standard, everyone is going to build to that," Coleman said.

Kathleen Rawson, who heads Downtown Santa Monica, Inc (DTSM), the agency that runs the City's central business district, praised the draft plan, adding that "we are going to see a lot of discussion, public comment and debate" before the plan is approved.

"The process has been arduous," Rawson said. "The City has done a stellar job with very broad community outreach. They talked to everyone.

"The plan reflects the will of what was heard," she said. "It is really a solid document that will maintain the scale we have now but build new housing."

The plan -- which will be discussed at at half a dozen public meetings before going before the council -- paves the way for the creation of 2,500 housing units that include much-needed affordable housing, City officials said.

Buildings of up to 50 feet would require that 15 percent of the units be affordable, while those up to 60 feet would have a requirement of 20 percent. If developers pay an in-lieu fee, the units could be built off site.

To insure that buildings don't have an overabundance of studios that cater to a more transient population, the plan requires that 20 percent of the affordable units be two-bedrooms and no more than 15 percent studios.

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