CITY HALL — Proposed developments in Downtown will continue through the public process as usual despite vociferous community disapproval and lack of trust, a divided City Council decided Tuesday night.
Councilmembers did request city officials return with a design for a public opinion poll to nail down what Santa Monica residents really think about different aspects of development, including heights, density and uses in Downtown.
The vote shot down an item brought forward by councilmembers Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer and Tony Vazquez that would have stalled consideration of any development over 84 feet, a measure that had gained support from six of the local neighborhood groups and two-thirds of the speakers who came before the council despite the late hour.
Although developers would be free to put their plans before the community, bodies like the Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission and City Council, which give input on the direction of developments, would not take a look.
Under law, developers could still request a final decision without the benefit of the float-ups, but would risk denial from public officials known to tweak development details at the last minute.
Proponents say that the delay would help regain a measure of trust in the public process that many feel has been lost as applications for developments, some as high as 320 feet, begin to roll in for “opportunity sites,” a term for roughly eight locations in Downtown that the Planning Department believes are appropriate for higher, denser development than elsewhere in the area.
Consideration of those sites should wait until the Downtown Specific Plan, which would define what can and cannot happen, is finished, McKeown said.
“This is a policy matter in the interest of good governance,” McKeown told his colleagues.
Opponents of the idea, many of whom were members of the local business community, felt that putting a stop to the already lengthy procession of public float-up meetings needed to define development agreements would put an unnecessary chill on projects, pushing money and jobs out of the city.
“The development agreement process is already a very slow one, and extremely so compared to neighboring cities,” said Carl Hansen, director of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce. “If we make our development agreement process more difficult and unpredictable, projects will locate outside of our borders, and we will see little of the benefit.”
None of the three hotel projects that would be impeded by the proposal — specifically the reimagination of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, a hotel designed by local architect Frank Gehry and the redevelopment of the former Holiday Inn — would come before the City Council for final approval before March 2014 anyway, the approximate time that planners expect to complete the Downtown Specific Plan, city officials pointed out.
That doesn’t matter if the projects get momentum from various float-up approvals only to find out that they violate the final plan, Winterer said.
“I don’t know why we’re spending staff time and the applicants’ money reviewing these projects at a discretionary level when we don’t know that the outcome we’re seeking is,” Winterer said.
His fear is that elected officials would feel pressured to approve developments out of keeping with the plan because developers spent money creating architectural drawings and consulting with staff while groups like the Architectural Review Board approved their designs or the Planning Commission defined appropriate benefits in exchange for greater height and density.
The proposal would have frozen things in the Downtown that exceeded 84 feet, while allowing developers to continue to do community outreach and work through plans with planning officials at their discretion.
The dimensions included in the motion drew their inspiration from the 1984 Land Use and Circulation Element, a document replaced by one of the same name in 2010.
Both purport to provide the broad brush strokes to guide development throughout the city, but the 2010 document stays virtually silent on Downtown, calling instead for a separate plan that tackles standards for that area.
The 1984 version, however, includes a height limit of 84 feet.
The three that put the motion forward needed to tempt only one of their three colleagues present on the dais Tuesday night into their camp. It almost worked with Councilmember Bob Holbrook, who took back his approval when it became clear that the three hotel developments would, in fact, be delayed by the proposal.
Instead, the vote split 3 to 3, with Mayor Pam O’Connor, and councilmembers Gleam Davis and Holbrook against. Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day was absent.
Davis put forward a second motion to stall council approval of any item until the specific plan was completed, but that failed, too. A second piece of her motion, which requested the poll of residents, was approved unanimously.
The hope is that the poll will finally answer the question of what the majority of Santa Monicans really want out of Downtown, rather than rely on emotionally charged community meetings to create consensus.
McKeown voted in favor of the poll, but made his displeasure about the rest of the proceedings known.
“I will be supporting this motion, although I think it would have been better, faster, easier and cheaper to just listen to our constituents,” McKeown said.