One of the most hotly contested City Hall appointments in recent memory is the filling of an empty seat on the Planning Commission. The City Council will choose a new commissioner Tuesday night to replace Ted Winterer who vacated his seat after being elected to council last November.
The commission is one of City Hall’s most important bodies. Its seven members are responsible for all new private development in the city. The commission provides a philosophical direction for overall development and the city Planning Department. It can suggest modifications, approve or reject projects brought before it. Final determinations on projects are made by the City Council.
A number of people have applied for the lone vacant seat on the commission. All are excellent candidates and most are well qualified. They represent all walks of life. Some are present and former neighborhood leaders, former City Council candidates and persons who are or have served on other city boards including Planning Commission.
There are three applicants getting lots of buzz: Armen Melkonians, John C. Smith and Susan Himmelrich.
Melkonians is a licensed professional civil and environmental engineer. His document, released Dec. 21, “Minor Detail — Big Implications: Buildout of the Bergamot Area Plan” is his analysis of development proposed in the east Mid-City area around Colorado Avenue, Stewart Street and Olympic Boulevard.
Melkonians says the amount of current development citywide exceeds the amount specified by the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE.) “LUCE projected a total increase of 4,955 residential units citywide in Santa Monica over the next 20 years,” he writes. “There are currently 4,618 residential units already either proposed or under construction in Santa Monica in the brief 2.5 years after the adoption of the LUCE,” or 93.2 percent of the total 20-year city-wide LUCE projection.”
He reveals that LUCE projected a total of 1,300 new residential units in the Bergamot area between now and 2030, yet there are currently 1,369 new residential units already proposed in just four development agreements on properties comprising less than 15 percent of the overall development area.
He also discloses that the proposed density for the Bergamot area will be somewhere between 49,147 to 59,760 people per square mile —a density of between 4.6 to 5.6 times that of our existing city (10,663 people per square mile).
Planning staff has vastly underestimated the amount of development and number of new residents that will reside in the area after the build-out, he says. Accordingly, staff has substantially underestimated traffic impacts, parking, school needs and use of resources such as water, sewage and power.
His recommendation: “The Bergamot area analysis should be revised to include the ultimate build-out of the area” and corrections must be made if the Bergamot Plan is to be a meaningful tool for decision makers.”
Some planners respond that Melkonians’ report has some inaccuracies and overstatements. But, it seems to me that he understands the planning process very well and isn’t afraid to speak out on problems and shortcomings.
Susan Himmelrich is an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. It was “Sue” Himmelrich who informed the council last month that the development agreement for the East Village proposed for the Village Trailer Park on Colorado Avenue did not include enough affordable housing. That led the council to rescind their prior approval of a agreement.
Himmelrich told me by phone that her passion was very low income housing. She says City Hall is behind in its commitment to build very low income units. While I have a great respect for her abilities to understand and evaluate development issues, I’m a bit concerned about her agenda. I have faith that, if appointed, she can look at a project’s overall impacts and make wise decisions on developments apart from being a source of poverty level housing units.
John C. Smith, the former television news producer who ran for City Council last fall also wants the seat. Smith is a smart, common sense man who has no housing, social justice or special interest agenda that would interfere with his ability to make objective decisions on proposed developments and planning policy.
Smith wants to make this a better community. Because he’s a man of integrity and reason, I know he’ll base his vote on a project’s ability to enhance the community. And, that’s refreshing.
I’m hearing that some council members want to appoint an architect. Big mistake. Architects who’ve previously sat on the commission have made terrible decisions and favored developers. These same architects also had lucrative city contracts and had to resign from the commission because of conflicts of interest. So, why go there? Another problem: no architects have applied for the post and “pulling names out of a hat” is unacceptable.
Planning commissioners must reflect the desires of all the people, not just special interests. They must be advocates for controlled, reasonable growth, protect residential neighborhoods against predatory developers, support and encourage sustainable projects that won’t add to traffic and champion developments that will only improve everyone’s quality of life.
Let’s hope the council appoints a person who will demand meaningful benefits for the whole community, not someone out to fulfill their own personal agenda or who is a political crony.
After three previous cancellations, the Planning Commission will (attempt to) hold a study session/review on the Downtown Specific Plan, Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers. Public comment is invited.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org