CITY HALL — More real estate projects will now be subject to the City Council’s approval after the body on Tuesday approved a temporary zoning law that requires a greater level of public scrutiny for planned buildings 32 feet and higher.

The plan means projects, especially in Downtown, that previously could have received routine approval from City Hall staff will now have to go through the development agreement process usually reserved only for large-scale projects.

The interim ordinance could have a big impact since plans have already been submitted for 750,000 square feet worth of development, according to a City Hall report.

The interim ordinance, which was approved by the five council members present for the vote on Tuesday, is aimed at forcing developers with pending construction projects to abide by the principals contained in City Hall’s recently approved general plan update known as the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE).

The LUCE is a broad outline for development in Santa Monica meant to ease traffic congestion by encouraging transit-oriented projects. Permanent zoning rules to put the LUCE goals into effect are being developed. In the meantime, the interim ordinance adopted on Tuesday will become law on March 11 and will require five pending projects to begin the development agreement process.

Prominent land-use attorney Chris Harding, who is representing at least one owner whose pending project is affected by the interim ordinance, told the council that the status quo of administrative approval for mid-size projects Downtown has resulted in incentives for residential construction in the city’s core that is in-line with the council’s affordable housing policy.

“The reason we have the housing we have is that we give housing developers a huge incentive compared to commercial developers,” he said. “To abandon that process at this point would be a serious mistake.”

But neighborhood activists and members of numerous City Hall boards and commissions urged the council to adopt the interim ordinance on Tuesday, saying they feared without it the city would end up with new construction that is not aligned with LUCE goals.

“It’s a way of safeguarding this great vision that the city has for its future,” John Berley, chair of the Landmarks Commission, said of the interim ordinance.

Valerie Griffin, who chairs the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition, also spoke in favor of the interim ordinance.

“It is important that provisions of the LUCE become effective as soon as possible,” she said. “The interim zoning ordinance is a very important first step.”

The council agreed to exempt affordable housing projects of up to 50 units from the interim zoning ordinance.

In a written message to the council, Sunset Park activist Zina Josephs unsuccessfully lobbied to get that exemption thrown out.

“This exemption has been a sore point with many residents, as there are no public hearings at either Planning Commission or City Council for these projects, merely two ‘community design’ meetings where residents concerns are listened to and then ignored,” she wrote.

As an incentive for developers, Mayor Richard Bloom raised the possibility of waiving development agreement fees for affected projects that are already in the pipeline and also urged the council to consider authorizing an expedited development agreement process for them.

The council is expected to consider those ideas at a later meeting.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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