After more than six years of workshop after workshop, documents large enough to use as a booster seat and numerous Planning Commission and City Council hearings, our elected officials are poised to adopt a final Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), the planning document that will guide growth in our town for the next 20 years. Having already met twice to review the draft LUCE, the council will meet Thursday night and July 1 for further discussion and then adopt a final version of the LUCE on July 6, incorporating those revisions to the draft the council deems appropriate.
There appears to be widespread consensus that the draft LUCE is on the whole a visionary plan for our future, as it reduces development pressures on our residential neighborhoods by conserving our existing housing stock and encouraging new housing production on our commercial boulevards and in the eastern end of town on former industrial lands. And an environmental impact analysis of the LUCE shows it will yield very few negative effects while reducing Santa Monica’s greenhouse gas emissions by focusing development next to mass transit and within walking distance of services.
Nonetheless, there are still some remaining issues that will be hotly debated in the final council hearings on the LUCE. Foremost among these will likely be the matter of building heights on boulevards and in the eastern industrial lands. For quite some time the height limits proposed in the LUCE have been based on the assumption that a 15-foot ground floor story for commercial space with 10-foot stories of housing above is more than adequate. But at a recent Planning Commission meeting my colleagues voted to recommend that the council increase the LUCE building height limits in parts of Santa Monica (Commissioner Jay Johnson and I voted against the motions). The rationale? That 18-foot ground floor stories and 10.5-foot stories above would make for better and more sustainable design.
The consequent proposed increase in building heights of up to 10 percent threatens the tenuous compromise struck in the draft LUCE between development interests, which would understandably like to build tall structures, and residents who wish to preserve the low scale character of the town they love.
And are the proposed height increases really necessary? The Planning Commission just approved a new green building on Wilshire Boulevard at Stanford Street with a 15-foot ground floor and 10-foot residential floors and not one commissioner commented negatively on these floor to ceiling heights. Instead there were only words of praise for the aesthetics and sustainability of the project, which suggests to me the height increases aren’t necessary for quality green construction.
Rather, I believe greater floor to ceiling heights make interior spaces more profitable to lease and sell without providing any improvement to the exterior appearance of buildings or other public benefit. So I certainly hope the council votes to retain the height limits in the LUCE rather than increase them.
Also before the council will be the mix of commercial and residential uses on our boulevards and in the Bergamot Transit Village and Mixed Use Creative District, the low scale industrial parcels near Bergamot Station in which the LUCE envisions significant redevelopment. Since the fundamental premise of the LUCE is to preserve existing neighborhoods by diverting residential development pressures to boulevards and districts, it’s critical that sufficient opportunities exist for housing production elsewhere. Moreover, in the last 25 years, millions of square feet of traffic-generating commercial projects have been built in Santa Monica while our housing supply has barely increased, so that we have evolved from a sleepy residential community into a bustling regional jobs center. It’s time to redress that imbalance, so I hope the council will take steps to assure that development on our boulevards provides housing above the ground floor and that growth in the eastern end of town creates a neighborhood which is at least 50 percent residential.
Finally, two of the most important issues for our future quality of life won’t be addressed until after the adoption of the LUCE. To assure new development doesn’t worsen congestion on our streets, the City Council should impose ASAP the traffic mitigation fee called for in the LUCE to fund congestion management policies and programs. And in equally short order the council should implement the LUCE’s neighborhood conservation tools to protect our housing stock and our residents.
After a long public process, our future is now. If you haven’t let your Councilmembers know your thoughts on the LUCE, you should write to firstname.lastname@example.org today.
Ted Winterer is a member of the Planning Commission and lives in Ocean Park.