On Aug. 13, the City Council will consider what maximum building heights and mass to study in the environmental impact report for the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide development for the next 20 years.
The decision … has no rights or wrongs. In practical terms, it is a symbolic decision that will reflect the vision we have for our city. The reason it is symbolic is that proposed projects that are over what will be studied will have to do their own EIR anyway and go through the development agreement process that gives the council the information it needs and wide discretion.
I urge the council to limit its study to the existing standards. Thus, the council will be sending a message that proposals above those limits will have to be justified; that benefits to the city (including design) would be significant enough to override our limits.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, massive buildings reflected the vision of developers. The tide began to turn when the city planned to tear down the pier and build a luxury island in the bay. A revolt ensued that killed that plan … . At the end of the decade, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights came to power in a revolt over high rents. In addition to implementing rent control, the SMRR-led council substantially lowered the height and development limits.
In these ensuing years, in response to residents’ anger, a Water Garden-sized project at the airport was killed, a planned hotel on the beach was defeated in a referendum and Santa Monica Place’s desire to add 21-stories of luxury condos above it was scratched.
In answer to our suggestions that the roof be removed from the shopping center, we were told that it was not “feasible.” I’ve concluded that sometimes when developers say something is not “feasible,” they really mean “not desirable.”
We now have four projects in the “opportunity” sites that are above our standards. I was a supporter of the Miramar proposal because I concluded that this one exception could be made because the substantial benefits offered outweighed the height and mass required by the luxury condo component. I also was offended by the despicable campaign of mis-information being waged by the Huntley hotel.
In response to community concerns, the previous council asked the Miramar to go higher to minimize the mass. Perhaps that inspired the other three to do the same. Thus, the otherwise well-designed proposal for the former Holiday Inn site has condos in the top five floors of its 15-story section. The top 11 of the 22-story Gehry-designed hotel on Ocean Avenue are reserved for condos.
The developers are telling us that the luxury condos are necessary to get financing today. In a city like Santa Monica, with the high occupancy and room rates, it doesn’t seem conceivable that more conventional hotel financing is not possible. At the very least, the city should do a truly independent study to verify these claims.
Santa Monica’s success has come because we are in the unusual situation … of being able to chart our own future. … Hotels are an important financial resource for us and generate less traffic than commercial offices. Luxury condos are not what we need and do not justify added height.
In my 36 years [here], including years as a neighborhood activist, planning commissioner, council member and mayor, I’ve been on different sides of development fights. My conclusion is that an important part of the charm and attraction of our city is because we strive to be a community that is low-rise and pedestrian-oriented, that supports bikes and transit, promotes sustainability and cares about people.
In short, build it right and they will come!