There was a surprisingly large turnout for a public policy event that didn’t include free food.
At the end of the unveiling of Santa Monica’s Downtown Community Plan (DCP) Wednesday night, City leaders revealed the head count had reached about 150 people inside Civic Center Auditorium’s east wing. Many of the attendees were City leaders or activists who have followed the evolution of the plan over the last five years.
A few minutes before opening remarks, the DCP’s principal author, Peter James, was feeling optimistic. He mingled with a few activists and looked at a giant poster in a corner of the room where survey takers had scribbled what they love about Santa Monica.
“It’s the beginning of the end – fingers crossed,” James said of upcoming discussion over the DCP, which will dictate zoning rules between the beach and Lincoln Boulevard for the next two decades. The plan encompasses the City’s urban core from Wilshire Boulevard to the north to the I-10 Freeway to the south. “I feel good about the content. For as big as it is, it’s a sensitive plan for Santa Monica.”
It’s a sensitive plan after a heated election. Longtime residents fuming over a changing city railed against “overdevelopment” and pushed Measure LV in November, an initiative that would have required a vote on nearly every new building in the City over two stories.
The measure failed but the dialogue over development shifted.
The final draft revealed Wednesday presented a scaled-back vision for downtown – with buildings limited to about four of five stories in the core areas near the Third Street Promenade. The City wants to encourage housing development, especially near the Expo Line, allowing mixed-use developments near the train to reach seven stories.
“People talk about the controversy in the downtown plan and it’s palpable,” James said. “Where we agree, I hope we can all get behind. We’re talking about a lower scale downtown. We’re not talking about Manhattan here. We’re talking about 4 or 5 stories.”
Even with the height restrictions, new construction could nearly double the number of apartments downtown over the next twenty years, according to City estimates outlined in the DCP. Right now, about 4,500 people live in 2,800 units. New construction could bring another 3,200 residents along with 1,000 new hotel rooms.
The City released the plan online shortly before the community meeting, giving activists and elected leaders little time to read through its 290 pages before the initial discussion. They will have plenty of opportunities read up and weigh in as the plan moves through the Planning Commission and City Council before final approval sometime this summer or fall.
It was clear from the get-go, however, groups who fought hard to defeat Measure LV are not satisfied with the DCP. They would like to see more housing in downtown, especially near the Expo line.
“This seems to be headed in the wrong direction,” Carl Hansen, director of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce, said of the DCP. Hansen cited a recent report from the Legislative Analysts Office that suggested a “substantial increase in private home building in the state’s coastal urban communities” to increase affordability.
“We’re in a housing famine regionally,” Hansen said. “We know millions of people are coming to the LA region in the next 20 years. Where are they going to go? This is getting scary.”
Former mayor and leader of Santa Monica Forward, Judy Abdo, agreed.
“There’s not enough housing,” Abdo said after the meeting.
On the other side of the spectrum, reaction from members of Residocracy, the group responsible for Measure LV, ranged from fatalism to satisfaction.
“I think a lot of my friends and neighbors have given up on downtown and decided it’s not for them,” outspoken member Patricia Crane said, calling the version presented Wednesday night a “done deal.”
The next day Residocracy’s founder and LV’s coauthor, Armen Melkonians, said he was happy with the scaled-down DCP. He suggested his group, notorious for criticizing City projects and leaders, may find themselves in a new position – defending the City’s document.
“I was pleasantly surprised and I thought that – for the first time in a long time – it appeared that there was resident input into the plan,” Melkonians said. “We want to play a role and make sure it doesn’t get upsized again at the Council.”
City staff members who work in planning and development are ready for the discussion. They hope to finish the summer with an ironclad plan that will stand for the next twenty years.
“Whatever the plan is, it will be our plan and it shouldn’t be easy to change,” City manager Rick Cole said to end his remarks Wednesday night. “It should be a plan that we can implement and stay faithful to.”
Beyond height limits, the Downtown Community Plan outlines a mobility plan, green space, and procedural changes to the rules for developers starting new projects. The Daily Press will continue to look into these issues and more in upcoming coverage of the DCP.