CITYWIDE — City staff are reviewing regulations that govern development within city limits, but community groups argue that large projects already in the works are doing an end-run around the planning effort before it’s completed.

The review of the city’s zoning ordinance, a tool to guide future development and design, is the first comprehensive revise in 25 years.

It codifies the specifics on how to put the broad goals embodied in the city’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) into practice, including design standards, regulations for buildings, the use of development agreements and currently undefined terms like “community benefits.”

At the same time city staff are pursuing the overhaul, several other large planning initiatives are taking place that impact both the effort and a number of major projects already in the planning pipeline.

That’s a problem for community groups, who feel that staff are putting the cart before the horse by allowing major development in areas before the do’s and don’ts are defined.

A prime example put forth by the group Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) is the Bergamot Area, which is both the center of a federally-funded planning effort and 1.4 million square feet of proposed development between the Village Trailer Park, Colorado Creative Studios, Roberts Center and Bergamot Transit Village projects.

The Bergamot Area Plan, funded by a $652,000 grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development, will create the framework to create the mixed use transit village that planners have promised at community meetings beginning in February.

It may or may not matter if the area gets developed before the plan is in place, wrote Diana Gordon, a co-chair of SMCLC.

“Developers have found their dream city in Santa Monica — an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world where massive, traffic-clogging developments continue to be approved before a Master Plan and zoning to control them are in place,” she wrote. “This is intolerable for residents who rely on the city to do good planning, not to abdicate to developers.”

Planning Director David Martin was asked by City Council members at a meeting Tuesday whether or not it was possible to pursue both the planning efforts and developments.

“The review of the projects and processing of the area plans inform one another,” Martin said.

That sentiment, which has been expressed by staff before, makes community leaders like Mary Marlow wary.

“I can only speak for myself, but I have my doubts that you can do these in tandem,” Marlow said. “It seems to me it’s more piecemeal, and you’re green-lighting these projects to negotiate.”

Without the plans, the negotiations for parking at the Exposition Light Rail station and an appropriate mix of housing and other development at the Bergamot site and proposed Lionsgate headquarters seem to be taking place in a vacuum.

“We’re looking at that and saying, ‘We don’t understand how you can start negotiating without having the base as to what’s going to be where,” Marlow said.

Council members focused their comments on the nuts-and-bolts of the planning, like how to build in flexibility for those with unique planning dilemmas or guarantee original architecture without being overly burdensome on designers.

The new code should also make room for “22nd century businesses,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis, who noted that the council had at one point banned match-making services, and then had to do an about-face to attract online dating site eHarmony.

Another element that concerned council members was time.

The LUCE process took seven years to complete, and the elected officials made no bones about the fact that they didn’t want to go through that again.

When assured by Martin that the Planning Department was capable of taking on the roles, Councilmember Kevin McKeown grinned.

“You are wonderfully optimistic, and I’m horribly pragmatic given the seven-year LUCE process,” McKeown said.

The staff’s timeline estimates that the first draft of the new zoning ordinance will be complete by June 2012 and the second by November 2012.

Staff will go through one more draft process before creating the ordinance, which it estimates will be passed in March 2013.

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