CITY HALL — Planning commissioners approved a housing project set for the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway Wednesday night, a structure that embodies several ongoing conversations about the current state of development in Santa Monica, and what it will look like in a scant two years.

The project, a 56-unit housing development in the heart of Downtown, returned to the commission after its design team was sent packing with a multitude of criticisms about the overall look and feel of the building at the Planning Commission’s Oct. 19 meeting.

It’s also the last of three projects trapped in the gray area that planners refer to as a “DA-lite,” a contractual agreement that added extra burdens to what would have been an in-house approval. That process was created when City Hall launched the land use and circulation element, or LUCE, an update to the city’s General Plan that will dictate development for decades.

When staff completes the new zoning ordinance in 2013, projects like the five-story housing development may get an over-the-counter approval, said Planning Director David Martin.

Until then, items like the charges on the developer for local infrastructure and limited apartment size were on the table for public debate.

Getting past the design problems identified in October was the first step in a series of difficult conversations, said Chris Harding, land use attorney for developer Steven Henry.

“The clients were pleased we got past that significant hurdle,” Harding said. “I think that staff will go along with the commission on the design issues.”

The more difficult issue to broach will be community benefits, an ill-defined subject with fees set by staff that has left some projects with substantially higher costs per square foot than others.

Some development fees are clearly defined in the ordinance, like those for child care facilities. Others, like fees to support local infrastructure, can feel more arbitrary.

Projects on the northeast edge of town paid far lower fees per square foot despite the fact that they are located next to a light rail terminus, the ostensible reason behind the $175,000 charge.

Two other projects located in Downtown with twice the floor area came with a $50,000 price tag each just a month before.

“How do we advise people what to expect?” Harding said. “We can’t tell them to ‘expect the unexpected.’ It’s not the right message for the city to be sending.”

Development requirements in the city are in the middle of a transition period, Harding said, and city staff and developers have to work together to iron out the kinks and add predictability to the system.

“It shouldn’t be hard to do a codified fee structure for the kinds of things that were under discussion last night,” he said.

Keeping fees fair has been difficult on the DA-Lite projects because staff didn’t complete a financial analysis to determine what a fair ask was, said Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer.

It’s left commissioners “grasping at straws,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate for all parties involved,” Winterer said. “The commission, and subsequently the council can’t get a handle on what is an appropriate amount of community benefits and it’s difficult for developers because there’s no certitude of what financial constraints will be placed on a project.”

At least one, a mobility fee, is already in the works and will roll out in coming months.

Where developers and City Hall do find themselves at odds is the notion of on-site affordable housing as a community benefit.

Technically, developers have the right to pay an in-lieu fee rather than build low-cost housing into their projects.

In the Broadway project, it will cost $1 million more than the in-lieu fee to provide the housing on-site, a cost for which Harding argued his client should get something in return.

“Assuming the City Council strongly favors the on-site housing approach, they need to give appropriate credit for that,” Harding said.

But staff doesn’t count the housing as a community benefit, because even though developers choose a more expensive option, they are still meeting the baseline requirements codified in city law.

On-site housing is preferable, Martin said, because the amount of affordable housing in the city increases more quickly.

“We agree, it makes it a better project and we think that’s an important public benefit,” Martin said.

Most of the nearly two-hour hearing focused on design commentary, much of it praising the clean, modern design with its glass balconies, judicious use of bright steel boxes to accentuate the lower floors and an increase in the floor area.

The larger building partially addressed another concern expressed by commissioners that the overall unit mix — then 56 studio apartments — would create a homogenous, transient population rather than contribute to the fabric of the Downtown community.

The architect used the expanded size to increase the floor area of eight units, transforming them from studios into one-bedroom apartments.

The project will now go before the Architectural Review Board, which will take a closer look at its materials and colors.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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