A majority of development in Downtown Santa Monica will be put on hold pending approval of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) at the request of City Manager Rick Cole.
The new process as envisioned by Cole and director of Planning & Community Development, David Martin, will refocus city staff on a handful of projects with special circumstances, temporarily delay any action on most commercial projects and prioritize adoption/implementation of the DSP.
The end result could be a significant decline in the number of development agreements and a standardization of the benefits offered by developers who want to build in the downtown area.
The zoning ordinance and the land use and circulation element have defined recent development in Santa Monica. Those documents set specific standards for development and outline priorities for the city at large. Prior to the recent adoption and updates of those documents, individual developments could only occur under a development agreement, essentially a case-by-case contract negotiated between the council and developer that extracted specific actions or payments in exchange for approval of the project.
With the zoning code in place, development agreements are still required for the largest kind of project. The zoning code itself governs development at the smallest scale and midsized projects are subject to a development review with fixed increases in the required benefits. Council only weighs in on review projects if they are appealed.
Plans like the DSP are specialized zoning documents that provide additional regulations on a geographic area. The restrictions and regulations of the zoning code do not apply in the downtown zone and development is currently governed by individual development agreements as the DSP has not been formally adopted. Cole has said the DSP is an opportunity to evolve Santa Monica’s development standards and bring the area in line with the rest of the city.
Cole outlined his reasoning to the city at their Oct. 13 meeting.
“I believe that working project by project has reached a point of diminishing returns in the city of Santa Monica,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we should never have development agreements, but it means we shouldn’t negotiate them one by one. We now know what we should get out of development in the city.”
According to Cole, the quantity, kind and level of community benefit necessary to win approval by the council is now known to everyone involved and has been well defined through the debate and ultimate approval of several recent projects. However, he said the process for getting to the necessary level of benefit has become somewhat of a charade.
“This will eliminate some of the political kabuki theater of ‘whatever the staff negotiates is never enough’ and ‘lets go to Planning Commission and ratchet it up some more’ and the developer knows its kabuki theater and holds something back to give up at the Planning Commission,” he said.
Cole’s plan would establish a standardized list of community benefits pegged to the level of development with a finite cap on the size of proposed projects similar to the provisions in the zoning ordinance. Projects that hit a specified benchmark would automatically have to provide the corresponding community benefits.
Cole said the goal is to improve the process for everyone by allowing council to focus its work on other issues rather than acting as a de facto planning commission, sparing developers from a wastefully long redesign process and providing residents with a sense of security born from the knowledge that development is under control.
The plan as approved by council will temporarily halt work on many agreements.
Martin said 28 applications for development agreements were pending with the City. Of those, 10 were inactive due to being withdrawn or a lack of action on the part of the applicant.
Most of the other agreements are in some stage of the process but have not had a formal public hearing yet and are not expected to come up for approval prior to the DSP adoption. Staff will not work on those projects for the foreseeable future and those projects will have to conform to the new rules as established by the DSP.
Discounting two projects approved by council the night of the discussion, four additional DA’s qualified for “priority processing” and could come to completion before the DSP is in place. One, located at the former Norm’s site at 1601 Lincoln Blvd., has already passed the Planning Commission and is scheduled for council review in December. Projects associated with City owned property would also qualify for the priority processing. Those include the 4th/5th and Arizona plan scheduled for discussion next week, the movie theater proposed for what is now a parking garage on 4th Street, and a pair of parcels (1325 6th St. and 1430 Lincoln) that are associated with the construction of Fire Station 1.
Also included in the recommendation Tuesday night was the formation of an “Access Gateway Master Plan” covering the section of downtown adjacent to the freeway.
That section of town, including the Wyndam hotel site, the Sears building, Expo station property and two office buildings on 5th Street between Colorado and Lincoln, has additional constraints due to its proximity to the freeway and Expo line. The Daily Press office is located in one of the impacted offices.
The new master plan would provide additional development scrutiny with a focus on access issues. The plan calls for examining realignment of the freeway off-ramp and potentially capping portions of the freeway in a way that will connect the Civic site with downtown Santa Monica.
Council was limited in its range of discussion items Tuesday night by the wording of their agenda. Council is prohibited from discussing topics not specifically agendized and the wording of the agenda item was limited to approving the proposed process. Staff will return to council in early 2016 with a final version of the DSP that includes specific language related to the required community benefits.
“The goal is to have something that will make sure that for the next 5, 10, 15 years, we have a vision, we have a plan, we have a code for ensuring that Downtown Santa Monica remains a great place and becomes a better place,” said Cole.