CITY HALL — In a series of votes late on Monday, the Planning Commission supported allowing developers to build taller projects in most areas of the city, sparking criticism from neighborhood activists and their allies on the commission.

The votes amount to recommendations about sections of the Land Use and Circulation Element that the City Council will consider as it finalizes the long-range planning document in June.

The recommendations urge the council to increase the maximum allowable project height by between 2 and 6 feet from the limits contained in the draft version of the LUCE in different areas of the city.

Under the commission’s recommendations, the biggest height change would be at the Bergamot Transit Village, where, by a 4-2 vote, the commission favored increasing the maximum height from 75 feet to 81 feet.

Proponents of the changes said the higher building maximum heights allow for better architecture and more sustainable buildings, and will have scarcely noticeable impacts on the cityscape. Greater ceiling heights let in more light and can cut down on utility costs, they said.

Neighborhood activists had a much different take.

“This is awfully late to make this big a change in overall building height and scale throughout the city with no community review,” said Valerie Griffin, who chairs the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition.

Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer, who cast dissenting votes on the height increase motions, said he agreed it was too late in the years-long LUCE process to make such substantial changes.

“It felt to me a little bit like making sausage after 11 p.m. in a council chambers that maybe had 10 members of the public present,” he said.

The new recommendations, he added, were “cobbled together after being penciled out on scratch paper,” rather than arrived at through a public process.

“There was never an opportunity for anybody to see what we ultimately voted on,” he said.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Jim Ries, who voted with the majority in favor of the height increases, though, said the recommendations were consistent with positions on building height the commission took in 2008 during conceptual meetings on the LUCE.

He said the fact that the votes on the height increases took place late in the evening didn’t prevent the public from being involved in the process.

“This is the way the city process is,” he said. “We have night meetings. You can’t have night meetings and not make decisions at night.”

The recommendations came after a Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce subcommittee on the LUCE this month urged the commission to increase maximum allowable building heights in several zones.

Reached on Tuesday, attorney Chris Harding, who co-chairs the committee, said he was not yet sure if the Planning Commission’s recommendations are in line with the chamber’s proposals on building height.

Ries, for his part, characterized the changes as moderate.

“We think that it’s a very small increase that creates a better built environment and also creates a better livable space,” he said.

The recommendations, if adopted, would not allow developers to add additional stories to projects.

The commission has yet to pass on its recommendations to the City Council and could still revise its positions.

In its recommendations, the commission stipulated that for the tallest buildings, developers should have to scale back floor area if they want to construct the tallest possible structure.

City Hall staff is reviewing that stipulation and is expected to report back to the panel before it completes hearings on the LUCE.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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