Over three years ago, City Council approved an update to Santa Monica’s general plan. Called the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, it’s a loose framework that sets direction and goals for development in Santa Monica over the next 20-plus years.
For example, LUCE mandates that new developments be environmentally friendly and that residential neighborhoods be preserved and protected. Most development would be more or less confined to transit corridors and areas such as Downtown and other opportunity sites.
For the next few months, the Planning Commission will be reviewing and updating specific codes to bring them in line with LUCE. In other words, they’re putting the meat on the bones.
Once adopted by City Council, the new codes will spell out every aspect allowed in new development such as the kind of materials (and heights) permitted for fencing or whether to permit childcare businesses in single-family neighborhoods.
More importantly, the codes will also dictate building heights, massing, lot coverage, step backs, parking requirements, uses and floor area ratio (or density), which will vary from one part of the city to another. This is where the devil is in the details.
One developer has plans for a five-story, 83-unit project with underground parking and retail space to replace Jerry’s Liquor at 2919 Wilshire Blvd. Up the block at the Bank of America site at 3032 Wilshire, the same developer proposes a five-story, 100-unit building with a rooftop pool, but no required parking for residents.
Both of these new “gateway” projects are essentially large, bulky, and unattractive structures. Their presence will lead to substantially increased traffic congestion in the area.
They’re typical of recent projects being built under interim development agreements that follow a tired, stale formula of cookie-cutter apartment buildings with chain coffee shops and bank branches on the ground floor.
City Hall officials and planning commissioners are quick to embrace this “mixed use” model because developers are required to provide a certain number of affordable or low-income housing units, which is what they desperately want.
So, developers crank out a few, tiny, 300-square-foot, low-income apartments in return for more market rate units resulting in buildings with greater mass, height and density. Neighbors deal with increased traffic and parking problems that result.
Northeast (or east Wilshire) neighbors, for example, want to see — and city planners have recently proposed — the higher and denser Tier 3 standards for commercial buildings on major streets roll back to the lower, less dense Tier 2 standards throughout the city.
This would certainly be more compatible to the adjacent, mostly single-family residential areas. But, developers and their high-priced lawyers are fighting hard to secure zoning that encourages bigger and more massive projects.
Don’t kid yourself. Developers, real estate types, lobbyists, public relations people and their sycophants are working hard to maximize opportunities for big profit. As was the case when LUCE was adopted, they’re doing whatever they can to insure they get their way. If residents don’t like it, tough cookies.
For most of us, talk about zoning is boring and hard to understand, especially when it gets into floor area ratios (FARs), transportation demand management programs and the like.
Lawyers for developers are turning out thick, detailed documents that even planning commissioners find hard to understand and they have said as much at a previous, lightly attended, holiday season zoning meeting.
I’m also not sure if Planning Commission members are aware of how these powerful business interests have already manipulated the LUCE and are now working on new codes for their own advantage.
The chairman of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, Brad Cox (senior managing director for mega-developer Trammell Crow) wrote a letter on Dec. 17 to the Planning Commission requesting that the more profitable (and larger) Tier 3 developments be codified for “Santa Monica’s boulevards.”
Cox and co-signer Laurel Rosen, the chamber’s chairman, president & CEO, wrote: “Eliminating Tier 3 would also undercut the city’s strategy for generating affordable housing.” Cox reminds the commission that Tier 3 requires “additional community benefits” and affordable housing is a key community benefit.
The letter continues, “All of the pending Tier 3 projects on Santa Monica’s boulevards (primarily Wilshire and Lincoln) consist of housing, above ground-floor retail, with significant affordable housing components. The city cannot eliminate Tier 3 without exacerbating its significant shortage of affordable housing.”
This, of course, is a typical ploy. Cox and Rosen know that low-income folks don’t have the buying power to sustain a robust retail economy, let alone the education or skill level to fill high-paying jobs.
Their whole appeal for “affordable housing components” is a cynical trick to tug the heart strings and manipulate planning commissioners who are strong affordable housing advocates. Trading off the threat of losing low-income housing for larger and more onerous developments is a bad deal for all of us.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m., the Planning Commission will meet and discuss actual zoning changes pursuant to the adoption of the updated codes. Code revisions for developments on the major commercial streets around town are on the agenda.
It’s important that residents be aware of the potentially unpleasant changes that may come if they don’t make themselves heard. So far, a few community activists and leaders of various neighborhood groups have been carrying the ball and that’s not enough.
Let’s not hear politicians and planners say in the end, “the people didn’t care.”
Bill can be reached at email@example.com and thanks Tricia Crane for her help in writing this column.