The not-so-endangered, yet elusive, Santa Monica Beach Fox was spotted two weeks ago. The sighting was made in the City Council chambers on Aug. 13, 2013. The crafty Beach Fox was up to its usual cunning tricks. She relied on her most cleverest hunting technique, “charming,” which consists of performing various antics in front of her prey. She jumped, rolled around, chased her own tail until she got her prey’s attention.

While performing at City Hall, the Santa Monica Beach Fox drew closer and closer without her prey ever realizing it. Then it was too late. At the right moment, she leaped and captured her prey. It was truly a well orchestrated and effective dance.

At first it seemed to be a historic night for the growing number of Santa Monica residents who are concerned with the increasing overdevelopment of our beach town. The battle between the residents and the majority pro-development City Council (and planning staff) came to a head two weeks ago in the council chambers.

At issue was the potential for proposed increased building heights for eight “opportunity” sites located in Downtown. Planning staff recommended that the City Council include increased building heights between 125 to 135 feet as part of the Downtown Specific Plan Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Additionally, alternative recommendations of buildings reaching heights up to 320 feet high were previously included one month earlier.

Feeling the undeniable mounting citywide pressure from neighborhood groups and residents, the City Council surprisingly backed off from the planning staff’s recommendations of increased heights.

Residents and neighborhood groups appeared to win the battle on keeping the existing character of our town. Celebrations and congratulations were in order. Height was not given away by our City Council to anxious developers who are lining up to change our town’s skyline.

However, while the residents were focused on height as a symbolic, emotional, and immediately visible measuring stick of overdevelopment, the Santa Monica Beach Fox was secretly grinning as she skillfully danced and prepared to pounce. She knew that her hunting technique was working. Her antics of jumping and chasing her tale and screaming out loud that taller buildings are better was a highly effective trick to misguide the attention of the concerned residents.

While the Santa Monica Beach Fox was able to draw the focus of residents in battling increased height parameters for “opportunity” sites, the City Council ultimately ended up increasing density parameters for over 3.5 million square feet of land in Downtown. This was done through a unanimous vote by City Council to increase the outside envelope of maximum allowable floor area ratios (FAR’s) that will be included in the EIR study for the Downtown Specific Plan.

Between July 9, 2013 and Aug. 13, 2013, in a one month time frame, the planning staff and the City Council were able to add significant potential new development entitlement rights on top of what was originally proposed.

Proposed densities along Ocean Avenue were increased by a factor of 20 percent.  The eight “opportunity” sites received substantial increases of up to 60 percent.  And a new light rail adjacent zone, encompassing 2 million square feet of property was created, increasing densities by up to 29 percent from just one month earlier.  And all these increases were successfully accomplished while residents focused on height.

The Santa Monica Fox’s hunting technique was genius. Residents concerned with overdevelopment made a clear cry to the council that they did not want our town character changed. And yet the City Council, through the planning staff’s recommendations, voted unanimously to do just that. Potential densities in Downtown were significantly increased, which will ultimately add significant new developments along with increased traffic, congestion and gridlock to our already failing streets.

The residents’ cries were heard and again ignored by City Council, and the pro-development machine continued to march forward with undeniable force.

An analysis of the City Council’s decisions shows that an additional 3 million square feet of new building entitlements were potentially created through the antics of the Santa Monica Fox. These additions are on top of what was previously proposed in the July 9, 2013 public hearing and include only the changes that were made in just one month.

Ocean Avenue will realize a potential increase of 320,000 square feet of additional development. The eight opportunity sites would see entitlement increases totaling 1,020,000 square feet. And the new light rail adjacent zone will be increased by 1,650,000 square feet of additional entitlements.

Ultimately, the question arises as to the value of these new entitlements to the developers who are lining up to capitalize on the pro-development machine. Using recent purchase data for developable land in Downtown (NMS’ purchase of the Denny’s property), it can easily be calculated that each square foot of allowable building construction is valued at $110.

This means that when the City Council members, without batting an eye, added 3 million square feet of new entitlements, they increased the value of the affected properties by $330 million. And the residents will ultimately be left to pay this tab through a decrease in our quality of life.

Even when residents win the battle over height, the residents end up losing the war on overdevelopment. The Santa Monica Fox’s cunning and deceptive tricks played an important role in making this happen. It is clear to me that the residents of Santa Monica are not only being ignored but also manipulated and now the Santa Monica Fox has been deployed to help.

But wait, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Fox hunting season is approaching fast and it is reported that Santa Monica residents have been seen preparing for the fox hunt.

 

 

This column was authored by Armen Melkonians, civil and environmental engineer and a grassroots advocate for resident democracy. The author and the other members of Our Town can be reached at ourtownsantamonica@gmail.com

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