I heard from our city manager, Rick Cole, last week. He wanted to discuss my column last week about the draft Downtown Community Plan (DCP).
“Our goal is to establish, once and for all, without exception, height and density limits for Downtown. These height limits could be 84, 120, 130 or 150 feet. It would be up to staff to determine a maximum height limit, Council to approve it and my office to enforce the height and density codes,” Cole told me.
He didn’t bring up the fact that the DCP would also allow new developments up to a whopping 100,000 square feet without the requirement for public review. Imagine walls of 100,000 square feet buildings, possibly 8 floors/84 feet tall, replacing Downtown’s mostly single and two story structures.
If the DCP is adopted as presently written, there will be no environmental impact analyses, no input from the community and no City Council approval for these overly large developments. They wouldn’t be subject to review in terms of traffic impacts or parking demands. And, don’t forget, there are even taller “exceptions” in the pipeline, DCP notwithstanding.
In public meetings, Cole has repeatedly said that he wants to eliminate development agreements as they open the door for abuse, special treatment and lead to inconsistent planning.
Development agreements result from developer-initiated negotiations with the City. The goal is for council to grant more generous height and density bonuses for their projects than the zoning codes allow in return for providing so-called community benefits such as low income housing, open space and traffic management programs.
Many residents understood Cole to mean that he was opposed to the increasing frequency of City Council’s approval of non-conforming projects that exceed the proscribed codes with out-of-scale heights and densities. It appears that what Cole may really advocate – overall accelerated development with less public input and government oversight – is in the draft DCP.
The zoning codes contain “tiers” that define developments on a graduated scale based on their size. In most commercial zones including major boulevards, Tier 1 allows developers to flat out build structures up to 32 feet (two stories) by right.
To build above the base height of 32 feet, developers may opt for Tier 2 projects up to 60 feet tall. The Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of the City’s General Plan required developers to hold community meetings and receive what is called a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) if they had Tier 2 projects.
However, during the zoning ordinance update process, City Council amended the LUCE so that Tier 2 projects no longer need a CUP. Now, Tier 2 projects are only required to meet a standardized checklist of community benefits.
This checklist was created to simplify the process for developer and City staff alike, according to planning staff. However, the removal of community oversight over Tier 2 projects initiated an outcry of “foul” from neighborhood leaders and activists who felt residents were being shut out of the process.
The same loss of oversight has been implemented for even larger Tier 3 projects downtown in the Downtown Community Plan. Tier 3 projects of up to 84 feet and and/or 100,000 square feet of floor space are non-negotiated (Section 2.3B DCP Tier System, page 25). This means developers can build projects up to 84 feet tall and/or up to 100,000 square feet of floor space with no public or council review and no environmental analysis.
According to Tricia Crane, chair of Northeast Neighbors, “The removal of negotiated agreements for Tier 3 in the draft Downtown Community Plan cannot be allowed to stand. Wider sidewalks, more bike racks and other so-called community benefits can never replace the need for a public process to evaluate the impacts of out of scale development on our quality of life.”
Benefits Tier 3 developers must provide are slightly greater than those required for Tier 2 projects, but the two are the same in the DCP in one respect: there is no negotiation of the terms of the project as long as the developer agrees to provide required prearranged benefits.
Cole mentioned that, “there are three sites downtown where we recommend consideration be given to a maximum height of up to 130 feet.” They are the 22 floor/244 foot Frank Gehry designed hotel proposed for 101 Santa Monica Boulevard, the 21 floor Fairmont-Miramar renovation and the 12 floor/148 foot, mixed use, Plaza at Santa Monica slated for City-owned property on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets.
Cole points out that there are already a number of buildings Downtown with 110 to 130 foot heights, including the Lawrence Welk Plaza, the landmark 1929 era Clock Tower Building and the an existing 10 floor, 105 -135 foot Ocean Tower on the Miramar Hotel property.
The City’s tallest building is the 21 floor, 280 foot tall high rise at Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.
“One goal would be for a project where an increase in height is granted, there be less density so that floor space and mass is not gained,” Cole said. “A taller, skinnier building may be more palatable than a shorter, fat one.”
Residents and political watchers have serious doubts about the Downtown Community Plan. Good, bad or indifferent, City Hall has lost so much credibility that the Residocracy Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) Initiative that is expected be on the November may be the only way to restore confidence in our City government and credibility in the City’s planning process.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.