CITY HALL — Letters flew, calls were made and speeches written on possible heights for the Downtown Specific Plan, but for all the hype Tuesday night’s City Council meeting fizzled into 90 minutes of public testimony with all hope of a decision on critical heights and densities pushed to mid-August.
Over 60 people signed up to speak on the agenda item, which would define what city officials will study in an environmental report that will expose the impacts of development in Downtown.
With only four council members present, however, Mayor Pam O’Connor announced early in the meeting that any official discussion of the issue would wait until Aug. 13 when all seven members are expected to be in attendance.
That meant that those who spoke Tuesday will not have the chance to speak to the topic again in August, but that didn’t prevent people from lining up, mainly to demand that officials include more information in the study of Downtown rather than less.
Officials included three scenarios for study. The first would look at buildings between 50 and 84 feet high, the second would limit so-called “opportunity sites” to 84 feet and the last would allow up to 135 feet at opportunity sites while holding other buildings to that 84-foot limit.
Limiting the study to just the three options didn’t win much support from anyone in the crowd, although many hold very distinct views on how they would shape Downtown development.
“This is an information document,” said Chris Harding, a land use attorney who represents developers. “We shouldn’t be closing the door on options.”
Planning officials also presented four less detailed alternatives for the City Council that offered different approaches to opportunity sites, which are eight parcels in Downtown that officials feel could accommodate taller, denser buildings in exchange for community benefits like public art, affordable housing or straight cash.
Those alternatives ranged from axing the idea of opportunity sites altogether to expanding the study to include the heights of three proposed developments — all hotels — that have already been submitted.
Finally, the City Council could choose to stall the whole environmental review process until planners finish a final draft of the Downtown Specific Plan.
Officials have opined against delays, as have representatives from Downtown Santa Monica Inc., the public-private organization that manages Downtown for City Hall.
Prior to the hearing, City Manager Rod Gould said that it made sense for the environmental work to progress simultaneously with the plan itself because the information about the environmental impacts will help drive the final shape of the plan.
City Councilmember Tony Vazquez didn’t feel the need to rush.
Vazquez pushed to see models of the various heights proposed prior to making a decision on parameters for the environmental report.
“I don’t understand how to give you direction if I don’t know what it looks like,” Vazquez said, and advocated for pushing the timetable back as far as necessary to get the models.
One way or another, the decision to hold off until August to hear more on the Downtown Specific Plan gives the Planning Commission time to consider the topic, which it could do as soon as next week.
That group, which delves into the real nitty gritty of development topics, had been skipped over for the Downtown Specific Plan, something that Commissioner Richard McKinnon felt was a mistake in the process.
McKinnon pushed for the Planning Commission to get a look at the plan before the City Council. That may not have happened without the unexpected absence of City Councilmember Bob Holbrook that took the total council count to a bare majority.
The City Council simply doesn’t have the time to discuss road widths, pavement choices or setbacks, whereas the Planning Commission often spends multiple sessions on a single plan, McKinnon said.
“My view is that the city will be better, whatever the outcome, if it comes through the Planning Commission first, a good position paper is put to it by department staff and people listen and it moves off,” McKinnon said.