CIVIC CENTER — Nearly 300 people Monday packed a town hall meeting at the Civic Auditorium to discuss future development in Downtown, a conversation that showed a community deeply divided between those who want to keep Santa Monica a “sleepy beach town” and those willing to trade height and density for affordable housing.
The planning effort at hand, called the Downtown Specific Plan, is in its early stages, city officials said.
At present, it proposes a tiered development system in which developers who wish to exceed heights between 32 feet and 39 feet will require a permit to do so, a standard more restrictive than currently exists.
Larger buildings will require more concessions from developers, although the plan does propose raising the heights along the ground floor on Second Street to hopefully allow for a better shopping and retail environment.
The plan also proposes bringing down the density of the area compared to what’s on the books now, which is a confusing mish-mash of discounts that obscures how dense a development really is.
At the same time, those rules could be thrown out the window at eight “opportunity sites,” locations with large lots, good access and opportunities for parking and open space that have already been identified by planners.
One such site is the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, where a developer has proposed a 22-story hotel designed by world-renowned architect and Santa Monica resident Frank Gehry.
The 244-foot-tall building far exceeds the maximums that exist in Downtown, which range up to 84 feet, and represent many residents’ worst fears — a skyscraper obscuring ocean views.
No guidelines have been put forward for those sites yet, said Francie Stefan, community and strategic planning manager with City Hall.
Liberated from the shackles of two-minute public comment periods and stationary microphones inherent in a formal public meeting, longtime Santa Monicans lobbied hard for restricted heights in the Downtown and the end of the opportunity sites that they fear promise dense, tall development in exchange for open space, infrastructure and other benefits.
Instead, they asked city officials to hold developers to the small buildings promised by the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, holding heights down to two, three and four-story buildings to protect ocean views and breezes.
“I’m here tonight to tell you that as residents we must take back our city,” said Diana Gordon, co-chair of Santa Monicans for a Livable City, one of the groups who advocated for the town hall meeting.
Younger residents of the city, however, had a very different perspective on the issue.
They were less concerned with traffic — having seen worse in Los Angeles — and were willing to concede on height and density for the chance to have more affordable housing that would allow them to remain in the city.
Some had moved in recently, others had grown up in the city by the sea but couldn’t see a way they could remain there given the high price of housing.
They were joined by bicycle and alternate transportation activists, who were also willing to concede that denser buildings and population centers might create a dynamic, walkable Downtown rich in transit options.
Such a vision would create “car-lite” Downtown dwellers who work close to home, eliminating the need for fossil fuel vehicles under most circumstances. Maintaining the status quo in terms of development strategies would turn Santa Monica into a “high-income retirement community,” one said.
“I don’t think this is a sleepy beach town, and I don’t think it’s been one for a long time,” said Bryan Beretta, a member of the local biking community.
The division seems to be part of a common narrative amongst young professionals in their 20s and 30s who participate in the creative economy that Santa Monica officials have worked so hard to foster.
Urban policy writer and researcher Richard Florida calls it the “great reset,” a flight away from suburban life and into dense population centers.
In an article adapted from his book, also called “The Great Reset,” Florida argued that geographic concentration helps dynamic businesses of the creative economy flourish and thrive, and that it must be supported by a change in infrastructure away from parking and car culture and toward alternative transportation and high-speed rail.
The divide is also one of perspective, said Michael Feinstein, former mayor of Santa Monica.
Those who have lived in Santa Monica for decades have seen it transformed by congestion and new development, things that for younger observers have always been a reality.
“People here before [Interstate 10] was built would have said the same thing 40 years ago,” Feinstein said. “There’s also a rightful, legitimate need of young people to have affordable housing and the ability to live in the city without paying more than half their income in rent.”
That need for affordable housing came in loud and clear to Councilmember Kevin McKeown, although some of the plans proposed for the opportunity sites, including high-priced condominiums in the Gehry hotel, seemed to him a bad way to go about it.
“Our efforts for affordable, sustainable apartments have more to do with zoning code and housing policy than with development agreements on opportunity sites,” he said.
Striking a balance between the two will be a difficult line for officials in the Planning Department to walk, particularly in the face of widespread distrust amongst longtime community members, and a belief that their interests come second to the development community and its deep pockets.
Part of that emerges from different interpretations of the LUCE, and the fact that the document took so long to create that a backlog of development agreements, contracts that allow developers to exceed normal zoning requirements, built up in the interim, Feinstein said.
The current lack of detail about what will be allowed at “opportunity sites,” those eight locations identified in various parts of Downtown, does not help.
“I’m here to tell you that in Santa Monica, trust is not only broken, it’s bulldozed and buried,” said Ellen Brennan, a community member who spoke against any expansion in development rights at the opportunity sites.
Feinstein, for one, remains confident that these differences can be worked out and a mutually agreeable solution found if only people are willing to keep lines of communication open.
“Trust building where people have the ability to speak out in forums in addition to the official bodies like the Planning Commission and City Council are important,” Feinstein said. “There’s a willingness on the part of the city to do that.”