CITY HALL — After six years of work, Santa Monica’s general plan update — the document that will guide real estate development in town during the next 20 years — is headed for final approval tonight, culminating a month of sometimes contentious public hearings.
The most significant changes to the draft version of the plan, which is known as the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), made in the past month include:
• An increase in the maximum building heights allowed in zones throughout the city by between 1 and 11 feet;
• A requirement that new development in the Mixed Use Creative Zone (located between Mid-City and the Pico Neighborhood on the east side of town) be split 50 percent residential and 50 percent commercial, with a 5 percent leeway;
• A decision that auto dealerships will be considered acceptable uses on the stretch of Lincoln Boulevard north of Interstate 10 and south of Santa Monica Boulevard;
• A decision to change the zoning designation of the Village Trailer Park from residential to mixed-use creative;
• The addition of language that acknowledges “the historic burden on the Pico Neighborhood of community and regional infrastructure” and requires planners to “evaluate all future changes [to the neighborhood] in terms of environmental justice and cumulative impact ….”
The most controversial of the changes involved building heights, with architects and the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce arguing for greater allowable heights to facilitate what they say would be better and more environmentally friendly design, and a chorus of neighborhood activists urging the council to stick with lower height limits proposed in the draft version of the plan.
The Planning Commission, in a series of 4-3 votes, in May recommended the higher height limits.
Neighborhood groups like the Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition, meanwhile, have consistently said the higher buildings allowed under the new limits would be contrary to the “human scale development” its residents prefer.
The council has agreed to go with the higher building heights, and is expected to finalize its position as it certifies the LUCE tonight.
The vote on building heights was split between those, like Councilman Richard Bloom, who argued the changes were modest adjustments that would have no negative effects on traffic congestion but would benefit the look and feel of the city, and others who argued the height increases were a sell-out to developers at the expense of residents who preferred lower buildings.
Defending his vote for the higher heights, Bloom said it’s important to note that no extra floors or higher-density projects would be allowed as a result of the changes.
“As we envision the community of the future, I think most Santa Monicans want to see outstanding, exciting, world-class architecture, and these very modest height adjustments will help us get there,” he said.
The largest increase in allowable height was at the Bergamot Transit Village, located on the east side of town adjacent to the future site of an Expo light rail stop. With the council’s vote, the maximum allowable height for projects there would increase from 75 feet to 86 feet, though a project’s average height would have to remain 75 feet.
Councilwoman Gleam Davis, who proposed the motion, said the higher maximum building height makes sense because it will allow for higher first-floor ceilings that will better accommodate art galleries and other creative uses, which proposed developments in the area aim to attract. The higher height also has to be accompanied by a corresponding decrease in density, she said, so the change could even decrease the traffic impacts of projects in the transit village.
Because the zone is not adjacent to other residential neighborhoods, she said the visual impacts on residents will be minimal.
But Councilman Kevin McKeown, who opposed all of the height changes, said altering the draft version of the LUCE at the last minute to allow taller buildings damaged the collaborative public process city leaders said they followed to formulate the document.
“We worked for six years with the public on this plan, inviting them to be our partner. At the last minute, you shouldn’t change the rules on your partner,” he said. “I voted no on additional height because I think the staff recommendations were professional, and the public input expressing concern about greater height was clear.”
McKeown also denied the height changes were minimal. The 11-foot maximum height increase in the Bergamot Transit Village, he said, comes after the council two years ago approved increasing the tentative height limit there by 10 feet, from 65 feet to 75 feet.
In another significant decision, the council opted for a target of a 50-50 split between residential and commercial uses in the Mixed Use Creative District, a zone where substantial development is expected in the next two decades. The decision was a compromise that replaced a proposal by McKeown to set the goal at 60 percent housing and 40 percent residential.