CITY HALL — The City Council Tuesday night took early steps to reform its process for allowing large developments, which became a balancing act between business interests who hoped to go full steam ahead and community members who cried out for a slow down.
The item came in the face of a glut of development agreement applications. Those are requests for contracts with City Hall to allow a developer to build outside the normal zoning rules in exchange for perks for the community, like child care centers or improved infrastructure.
The council took a series of voice votes directing city staff to prioritize planning efforts throughout the city as well as smaller scale projects with fewer traffic and circulation impacts and follow the guidelines laid out in a plan emphasizing Santa Monica’s sustainable economy, which was presented in late 2011.
They also voted to change how certain kinds of developments progressed through public process, first by requiring developers to present their projects directly to the public without using staff as an intermediary and then by changing public hearings to get the Architectural Review Board involved in the process earlier.
Projects that don’t require environmental review will have the option to skip over an intermediate step called a “float up” which some find useful for vetting ideas before going to the make-or-break hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council, and others find confusing.
Alternatively, the City Council could have called for either an outright moratorium on development or held off on developments in areas like Downtown or near what is now Bergamot Station while planning efforts went forward.
Each of those options was more complicated, said Planning Director David Martin, because they required either a supermajority of the council or special findings involving health and safety concerns in the city.
Business interests worried that the proposed changes would slow down the process and cost developers valuable time and resources, stifling growth in the community.
Community members pointed to the fact that the proposals already in the pipeline and approved within two years of the adoption of the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element constituted the vast majority of development planned for a 20-year period.
Many of those projects, if approved, wouldn’t see the light of day for a decade or more, Martin said, but acknowledged that staff was overwhelmed by the number of applications that had come in, with two more arriving at the Planning Department on Tuesday afternoon.
“There’s no question — we’ve seen a lot right out of the gate,” Martin said.