The Downtown Santa Monica skyline is in for changes once a new plan to guide development in the area is adopted by the City Council. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
The Downtown Santa Monica skyline is in for changes once a new plan to guide development in the area is adopted by the City Council. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — A proposal to study the environmental impacts of Downtown development will only look at building heights 135 feet and below, a ceiling that could spell trouble for those with hotel proposals that far exceed that limit.

If approved by the City Council Tuesday, planners would look at relatively small changes to most of Downtown as part of a review required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Most of the changes would be concentrated in eight “opportunity sites,” locations sprinkled through Downtown that city officials have identified as places for more intense development in exchange for rich community benefits.

However, while proposals for three of those sites — the Fairmont Miramar, Wyndham and Ocean Avenue Project hotels — range from a low of 195 feet to a high of 320 feet, the proposed study would only look at heights up to 135 feet, a limit that would require all three of the proposed hotel sites to get amendments to the specific plan if adopted.

That means expensive environmental work for the applicants that would otherwise have been avoided and an uncertain plan amendment process that would involve review from the Planning Commission and City Council.

“It would be untruthful if I said that I wasn’t disappointed that they are not going to study the proposed height,” said Debra Feldman, vice president of capital transactions with Felcor Lodging Trust, the owners of the Wyndham, which was formerly a Holiday Inn.

Feldman’s project includes three buildings, the tallest of which hits 195 feet. The others step down considerably, with the shortest at 63 feet.

The project could still go forward, even if the proposed height is not included in the study, but the company would have to pay at least $500,000 for an environmental impact report to request a change in the Downtown plan.

Feldman’s main concern remains that the proposed 135-foot limit for the study is actually a hint that officials do not want anything taller than that, and that the company will be throwing money away by paying for expensive plans to back up a proposal with no chance of passing.

“If by studying this height the city is essentially saying we don’t want you to go any further, if there’s a hidden message here, I sure would like to know that, because I don’t want this to be a waste of our time and money or the city’s time and money,” Feldman said.

Others are concerned that anti-development residents will latch onto the 135-foot figure and try to ensure that no project ever exceeds it.

Planners made the suggestion in part to highlight the Bay Cities Guaranty building — better known as the Clock Tower. It’s an Art Deco tower that measures 140 feet between the building’s podium and the base of the clock tower that was originally built in 1929.

Many see it as an iconic building in Downtown, said Francie Stefan, community and strategic planning manager with City Hall.

“Other cities do this. They take an iconic structure and say that it should be the most visible piece of our landscape,” Stefan said.

That means heights to be considered for the Downtown would range from roughly 125 feet to 135 feet, a height that grows as the building addresses move west.

That compensates for a significant slope in the ground that shows a 9-foot drop in elevation along Colorado Avenue between Fifth Street and Fourth Street alone.

Planners discovered that trick of topography when preparing for the Exposition Light Rail Line, Stefan said.

The lower limit emerged from community meetings about the city-owned site at Fifth Street and Arizona Avenue, which can incorporate the much-beloved ice rink and a gathering plaza for residents if it hits that 120-foot height.

Although the proposed heights do not get close to the heights included in the hotel proposals, the majority of projects will fall within the parameters set, Stefan said.

“It’s unusual in most cities that people apply for heights and (density) that exceed the regulatory structure,” Stefan said. “Most people will look at the laws in place and make an application within those parameters because it takes less time.”

That represents a contradiction between what the Miramar team has been told by some city officials and what they read in the newspapers, said Alan Epstein, an executive with MSD Capital in charge of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel project.

“Frankly, I’m not sure what to believe, and I don’t understand how the Downtown Specific Plan Team can simply ignore the very explicit direction given to the Miramar by six members of the City Council at our April 2012 float-up hearing, where the council told us that our proposed 135-foot building at the center of our site should be taller to reduce the view impacts on neighboring buildings to the east,” Epstein said.

The heights proposed do not represent an approved plan, but rather a place to start looking Downtown. The study will also include several less-intense options, according to the staff report.

“Studying the range of scenarios allows decision makers to compare alternatives and impacts in their review,” the report reads.

The City Council has the ability to change the parameters to include the proposed heights of the various tall projects in Downtown.

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