DOWNTOWN — It hasn’t even reached the Planning Commission phase and some residents are throwing around words like “referendum.”
The Santa Monica City Council unanimously preferred a taller project proposed for an 112,000-square-foot public plot Downtown, despite resident calls for no development at all.
When council members selected Metropolitan Pacific from a pool of developers last year, they asked the team to provide an 84-foot-tall alternative to their original 148-foot proposal. Eighty-four is a magic number because it’s in line with the height limits proposed in the pending Downtown Specific Plan, which will dictate land-uses in the area.
At Tuesday’s meeting, developers presented the 84-foot-tall alternative and asked council to pick a direction. The developer, led by John Warfel, requested that council pick the taller design, noting that it would include more greenspace, affordable housing, tax revenue, iconic architecture, and parking spaces.
Council members agreed. Their vote asked simply for the developers to focus on the taller project and is far from an approval of the project itself.
Metro Pac will have to go through City Hall’s development agreement process, which includes stops at the Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, and, again, City Council.
Many residents came out to speak on the item with a significant faction urging council to decline both options in favor of a zero-foot-tall park with underground parking.
Those opposed to the project noted, among other things, the shadows it would create and the car trips it would generate.
Armen Melkonians, the founder of Residocracy, which successfully halted a recent controversial development agreement through a referendum process, called the shorter project “horrible.”
“I think the developer has come back with an 84 foot project that’s completely disingenuous,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It’s not a good project.”
Three “specials interests,” he said, are the basis for the project: “The hotel, affordable housing, and tax-base.”
In just over 24 hours, he said, 586 residents had signed his online petition, promising, collectively, to deliver 6,500 signatures for a referendum if council decides to develop the public land. He called a public park “the only solution.”
Several council members, including those who label themselves “slow growth,” noted that the park plan would be economically infeasible.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown highlighted the recently-opened Tongva Park.
“(The project site is) a short walk from a $46 million park,” he said, “and if you don’t think that place is special please go there after the meeting.”
McKeown noted that he’s stood alongside many of the pro-park neighborhood groups when they were fighting “bad projects” and that he will likely continue to do so in the future.
“This is a different situation,” he said.
McKeown and the other council members highlighted the community benefits, which, they said, could outweigh some of the project’s downsides.
Councilmember Gleam Davis and others pointed to the project’s proposed greenspace.
Councilmember Tony Vazquez and others pointed to the jobs that the hotel would create. Members of Unite Here! Local 11, a hospitality union, voiced support for the project’s job creation and affordable housing.
A shorter project would include 24 affordable housing units to the taller project’s 48.
Sarah Letts, executive director of CCSM, the city’s largest affordable housing provider, noted that the economies of scale in a larger project make affordable housing easier to finance and operate.
Councilmembers Vazquez and McKeown asked about the feasibility of reducing the amount of office space in favor of either affordable housing or hotel rooms, which typically generate less traffic.
Warfel explained that office space is attractive to investors because it is more financially stable.
Council members, including Ted Winterer, were careful to note that while they prefer the taller option, it does not mean that the final project will be 148-feet-tall. Metro Pac will continue to plan and adapt as they negotiate with City Hall.