Hear ye! Hear ye! Tonight’s (July 9) City Council hearing starts at 6:30 p.m. and is sure to be a heated debate. Proposed height and density for Downtown will be the focus of discussion for agenda item 8A. Developers want more. Residents want less. The City Council will ultimately set policy which will reshape our open skyline for generations to come.
Residents should plan to attend as public input is critical in this debate. Call the baby-sitter, bring the baby if necessary, and rally your friends and neighbors. It’s our town and resident voices need to be heard by our majority pro-development City Council before any decisions are made.
The “tall” issue at hand relates specifically to the eight “opportunity” sites. These sites include the Miramar Hotel; the proposed Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard; the Wyndham Hotel (formerly Holiday Inn) at Ocean and Colorado avenues; the Sears site; the Fred Segal site at Fifth Street and Broadway; the Expo Light Rail station site; the City Hall-owned ice skating rink site; and the Big Blue Bus yards. Although the proposed height for the entire Downtown is presently capped at 84 feet high (higher than most existing buildings today), the emerging Downtown Specific Plan slates these eight “opportunity” sites for even taller buildings.
Currently, the controversial Miramar Hotel site has proposed plans for a whopping 320-foot-high skyscraper, the proposed Frank Gehry designed hotel stands at 22 stories and 244 feet high, and the proposed Wyndham Hotel at 15 stories and 195 feet high.
Bowing to resident outcries concerning these behemoth structures, which will dramatically change our open skylines, the planning staff has recommended that the council consider a maximum height of 135 feet in the Downtown Specific Plan Program Environmental Impact Study (PEIR) to define the “project.” A specific definition of a “project” is required by the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQA) before the PEIR can be started and the Downtown Specific Plan finalized.
Although planning staff’s gesture (assuming that City Council agrees) is a small win for residents, these recommendations fall short in protecting our town from overdevelopment and the eventual destruction of our open skies. Santa Monica’s 15 tallest buildings were for the most part built in the 1960s and ‘70s and stand on average at about 160 feet tall. The newest of these buildings, located at 1299 Ocean Ave., was completed in 1981 and stands at 143 feet and contains over 180,000 square feet of office space. Santa Monica’s 1984 General Plan eventually limited all new buildings to a maximum height of 84 feet.
Now, the proposed Downtown Specific Plan is once again reaching for increased heights. Additionally, even if height is restricted to 135 feet in the PEIR, developers will not necessarily be stopped from continuing proposed development agreements to achieve increased heights. A separate EIR would be required of developers focusing on impacts of increased heights together with a text amendment to the Specific Plan. Keep in mind that the Miramar Hotel has already started its process of preparing an EIR for a proposed 320-foot-high tower at Ocean and Wilshire.
Planning staff and the council claim that residents support these new developments. They claim that residents have embraced our town’s recent and proposed growth. And now they are claiming that residents support increased heights. Based on my conversations with hundreds of residents, nothing can be further from the truth.
City officials claim that residents embraced the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) which took seven years to prepare and has sparked all of our overdevelopment. I disagree. For seven years the residents were shown pretty pictures of sidewalk cafes together with grossly underestimated projections of growth. The LUCE was ultimately sold to residents as a misrepresented vision of a future and better Santa Monica. The LUCE projected a 20-year citywide growth of 4,955 dwelling units. According to city records, as of Dec. 31, 2012, (just 2 1/2 years after adoption of the LUCE), a total of 4,618 residential dwelling units were already proposed or under construction in Santa Monica.
Similarly, the LUCE 20-year citywide projections of growth for office space were estimated at 448,980 square feet. However, one proposed development project (the Paper Mate project) has a pending development agreement which includes 494,927 square feet of new office space. That’s 50,000 square feet more than the entire citywide projections for the next 20 years at one location.
The LUCE promised all of this growth in “only” 4 percent of the city in order to maintain the existing “character” of Santa Monica, which sounds great. Right? But as one former City Council candidate, Bob Seldon, put it, “If you have cancer in only 4 percent of your body, it’s sure to make the rest of your body pretty sick.”
In order to sell the LUCE to the residents, city officials also promised that new developments would come with “no net new peak p.m. traffic counts.” Poppycock! As recent proposed development agreements and their associated project specific EIRs have been circulated, we see that daily traffic will increase by thousands of car trips with each successive project; at all hours of the day, including peak p.m. hours.
And now city officials have the nerve to claim that residents support increased heights in our Downtown in exchange for “extraordinary” community benefits and ocean views for these opportunity sites. Again, poppycock!
The reality is that our town is not for sale. I urge all residents, do what you need to and get to City Hall to voice your opinion.
I think you’ll agree, it’s time to reduce proposed building heights from the existing 84-foot height limits and limit all opportunity sites to the present limit of 84 feet. Make sure the City Council hears that loud and clear. Just say “no” to taller buildings.
This column was authored by Armen Melkonians, civil and environmental engineer and a grassroots advocate for resident democracy. The author can be reached at email@example.com.