CITY HALL — An additional five people have applied for a single seat on the Planning Commission, leaving the City Council with a crowded field from which to select at its meeting Tuesday night.
The Planning Commission is a seven-member board that acts as the front line for the City Council on decisions related to development and land use. It can also make final decisions on some permits, appealable only to the City Council.
This is a big time for the commission, which will deal with what some in the community are calling a tsunami of development agreements as well as an update to the zoning code and three other major planning efforts.
A spot opened up when former Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer became the top vote-getter in the Nov. 6 election and ascended to the City Council, the body that appoints commissioners.
The Daily Press gave a recap of eight would-be commissioners in the Jan. 5 article “Residents vie for spot on Planning Commission.” They ran the gamut from experienced planners who cut their teeth on issues in Los Angeles to civil engineers busy crunching numbers on Santa Monica’s infrastructure needs.
Since that date, five more have applied, each with a deep background in Santa Monica politics on a granular level.
Current Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco and Santa Monica Conservancy co-founder Tom Cleys bring a preservation orientation to the mix as well as a solid background in development and, in Cleys’ case, real estate and finance.
Albin Gielicz, chair of the North of Montana Neighborhood Organization, and John C. Smith are both steeped in neighborhood politics and bring a “boots on the ground” perspective to tricky questions like the city’s new zoning code.
Finally, Sue Himmelrich, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, is a 21-year resident of Santa Monica with knowledge of laws surrounding planning efforts currently before the board.
For Fresco, the open seat was a matter of good timing.
She’s about to term out of the Landmarks Commission, but has a taste for public service and a deep knowledge of development in Santa Monica, both past and present. That includes a historic perspective of development and densities along Santa Monica’s corridors, and definite opinions on how to preserve them while allowing additional development.
Fresco also believes that Santa Monica can get more out of the development that is allowed, both in terms of community benefits and visual appeal.
“I think that the quality of the larger developments that are happening isn’t what I think Santa Monica deserves,” Fresco said. “I think that there are ways we can approach it where we put more of the burden on the applicant to show us why their project is more than a big, gray box and leave it to us to negotiate how to get stuff out of it, somehow.”
Cleys, as a co-founder of the Santa Monica Conservancy, has a background both in Santa Monica history, and neighborhood groups — he spent a decade on the board of Friends of Sunset Park.
He also has some personal experience in real estate development. He spent 11 years in financial management of manufacturing companies, nine years in commercial development and another 16 in real estate lending and asset management.
Cleys expressed his priorities in one word: balance.
“This is my community, and I want to see good development where there is development,” Cleys said. “I live in Sunset Park and I deal with traffic issues. At the same time, I’m a citizen and I understand there are rights to be able to develop projects and we need to strike a balance here that makes sense.”
Gielicz also touts his community credentials in his bid for a Planning Commission seat. He heads up the Noma neighborhood group as well as a local commission, which Gielicz believes will make him a bridge between City Hall and residents.
“Put those two together and I’ll be able to take a leadership role in this, and really provide the City Council with concise, meaningful recommendations on a project by project basis,” Gielicz said.
Smith makes the third former City Council candidate to enter the run for the Planning Commission after Armen Melkonians and Frank Gruber.
Smith spent his career in broadcast journalism, a profession he believes has prepared him for hearing both sides of weighty development issues.
The onslaught of development agreements and planning initiatives require a big picture view and balance, something Smith thinks he can provide.
“There’s a lot of work that lies ahead. What I don’t want to see is that some of it goes by too quickly where the best plans and projects are not given the attention they deserve,” Smith said.
If he is selected, Smith committed to serving all constituencies, beginning with the residents, then local businesses and finally tourism.
Last but not least is Himmelrich, an attorney who, according to her application, became involved in Santa Monica politics after working with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles on a development agreement that still might replace a local trailer park with a mixed-use residential development.
Himmelrich is a litigator, mediator, temporary judge and (non-practicing) real estate broker, and has handled a wide range of property and development matters, according to her application.
“I am familiar with the LUCE and the Housing Element, as well as with California laws relating to land use planning, general plans, specific plans and density bonuses,” she wrote.
If selected, Himmelrich committed to promoting affordable housing and retaining diversity in Santa Monica.
The City Council is expected to make a final decision on Tuesday night.