Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

CITY HALL — Cities like Santa Monica do not just form, they are planned and in the city by the sea, much of that planning is happening right now.

City officials have begun to add details to the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, a document that lays out the policies by which Santa Monica will develop over the next 20 years. The Bergamot Area, Bicycle Action, Pedestrian Action, Memorial Park and Downtown Specific plans represent a handful of those efforts, ones that will dictate the heights, densities and even types of buildings allowed in those areas of the city.

At the same time, a flood of large projects rolled in at the end of 2012, leading some community members to worry that the housing, office space and other construction planned for two decades of development would come online in just a few years and before the rules for the areas had even been determined.

Officials have recently focused on the Downtown Specific Plan, which creates rules for the area that falls between Ocean Avenue, Interstate 10 and Wilshire and Lincoln boulevards. The thinking for that piece of the city includes special plans for eight parcels in the Downtown, which officials call “opportunity sites” for their potential to support larger projects that will attract rich community benefits.

Hundreds of residents turned out to public meetings to protest the proposal, in particular three hotels ranging from 195 to 320 feet that many feel will turn Santa Monica into the much-maligned “Miami Beach.”

Between developers who want to move on with their projects and residents concerned that their town is being built out willy nilly are the city’s own planners, which both draft the plans and negotiate with developers over projects that exceed zoning rules.

With that in mind, the Daily Press caught up with Planning Director David Martin to talk about the ongoing work to guide Santa Monica’s growth and how best to balance all of the voices in the conversation.

Daily Press: The City Council approved the Land Use and Circulation Element in 2010. Three years later, why haven’t we finished the plans that it requires?

David Martin: So, the LUCE set up the requirement for all of these additional planning efforts to happen, and that was in July 2010. From our perspective, we are making our way through the development of those plans. We’ve already adopted the Bicycle Action Plan, we’re very close to the Bergamot Area Plan, we’re halfway through the Downtown Specific Plan and we are getting ready to start the Memorial Park Plan.

I can understand from a community perspective it may seem like we’ve been working on these for a long time, but if you consider that we’re less than three years from when the LUCE was first adopted, we’re chipping away at them as expeditiously as possible given the complexity of the issues. It’s not as if we can say here’s what we see Downtown, here’s the plan.

DP: Many are concerned that projects are coming forward while the plans are still being formed. Should the development agreements (contracts with City Hall that allow developers to exceed the zoning code) be put on hold until the plans are finished?

DM: The Bergamot Area Plan does have development standards, maximum heights and (floor-area ratios). That’s all part of the LUCE, and the area plan was just to refine those and think about how the circulation and connections would work. It did set the parameters for the development that could occur. Based on that, the idea was that the projects could move forward because we already knew the outside envelope of what could be built.

In the Downtown we don’t know that, so it’s a little bit different. What we were able to accomplish was to make sure as the projects were moving forward, they were going along in parallel with the development of the plan and we were constantly checking and making sure that the projects are consistent with the plan. Just that they’re informing each other as they go forward.

DP: Should the projects be informing the plan, or should it be a one-way street?

DM: Certainly the community could decide that we want to wait until the plans are in place before we start the projects, but that’s not how the city and the council decided to go.

We were trying to move things along and make sure again that the projects were informed by the plan. I think we’ve been able to do that, and the projects that come forward will be consistent with the area plan.

DP: The Planning Department is in the process of creating the zoning ordinance, which will determine planning standards for the city. In the meantime, every project over 7,500 square feet becomes a development agreement. Did you anticipate the large number of proposals City Hall would receive?

DM: I don’t think we were expecting such a high number, but we did know that there would be some. Obviously, because of the way it was structured, many projects over 7,500 square feet would be a development agreement, so we knew that there would be a fair number of those. I think we were all surprised by the level of activity we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

DP: Will the new zoning code fix that situation?

DM: What we’re looking at in the zoning ordinance is taking the (development) tiers that are in the LUCE, and in most of the districts.

Tier 1 is mostly ministerial projects, smaller projects. They would be allowed by right. Then you get into the Tier 2 category. That’s a discretionary process, but not a development agreement. That goes to the Planning Commission, and we have something called a development review permit that used to be much more common.

But I think when the zoning ordinance is adopted we will have a much easier process for certainly Tier 1 and Tier 2 projects, and there will be a clear distinction and choice for applicants.

DP: The LUCE called for the preservation of 96 percent of Santa Monica, meaning only some properties are really available for development. Does that create a situation where developers have to ask for the moon to get a return on investment for a project in that other 4 percent?

DM: They might be. If they bought the property with that expectation, they would need to go for the maximum because that’s what they assumed. But, I think that’s where we will be much better off when we have a Tier 2 process, and can be clear about what you can do. This is what the standards allow, and the development agreement is an exception. If you want to go through that process it’s going to take a long time and you don’t know what the council’s going to ask for. We have high expectations, and it’ll be a difficult process. If you want to do it, fine, but we’re offering you an easier process.

The other thing is we don’t know the answer because of the (interim zoning ordinance) and where we are, everything’s a development agreement. I can understand from a developer’s perspective, I have to do a development agreement anyway, so I might as well go for Tier 3. Why would you go for a project that’s Tier 2 when the entitlement process you’re required to do is the Tier 3 process? It does create a situation in which if you’re going to go through this difficult process and take the time, you might as well ask for Tier 3 and see what happens.

DP: People are concerned that the large number of development agreements encompasses all of the development meant to happen in the next 17 years. How do you deal with that?

DM: There is concern about the overall amount of development, because if you look at all of the projects, that seems like a lot. We look at all of that and we recognize and agree that it’s a lot, but we also know that we will go through this process and projects will fall out …. Not all of these  projects will be built.

DP: People are also worried about development in the Downtown, specifically at the so-called “opportunity sites.” What is an opportunity site?

DM: As called for in the LUCE, we wanted to make sure that those sites were opportunities for something to generate a lot of community benefits and contributed to the advancement of the Downtown, and that they were thought through.

DP: Will plans for these sites get approved in advance of the Downtown Specific Plan?

DM: There was never an issue of whether those projects would come to the City Council for final approval prior to the Downtown Specific Plan. Even if we wanted to do that, which we don’t, it’s not possible. Of all of those projects, the (Fairmont) Miramar is the furthest along, and even that one will be at least a year before it gets to council. So, I think the idea would be that we would continue with the Downtown plan and, as directed by council, we will keep processing those applications.

DP: Residents often say that they feel cut out of the process, and that comments at meetings meant to solicit ideas for the city are often ignored. How does the Planning Department use input from meetings, and what if people can’t see their ideas reflected in a final document?

DM: We try to keep an open-minded communication. And I think we do a good job of it, except that I know there’s … a frustration that some residents have that they’re not part of the process. I think they think there’s something they don’t know, or something we’re doing that they’re not aware of. We’re trying to be as open and up front as possible. I think it’s building that trust, but I don’t know how we get there.

We seek input, and whatever input we get we carefully consider in the mix of everything else and then we come forward with our best recommendation. Our recommendation is influenced by the input that we get from neighbors, residents and everybody else. But that input may not change our recommendation. It’s part of the mix. And even if our recommendation changes, it might not change what happens at council. There’s that part of it, too. Nothing’s ignored, but it might not ultimately be reflected in our final recommendation or their final action.