HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH? The City Council on Tuesday approved building heights to be studied as part of the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide development in the shopping district for decades to come. (Daniel Archuleta
HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH? The City Council on Tuesday approved building heights to be studied as part of the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide development in the shopping district for decades to come. (Daniel Archuleta

CITY HALL — In a move that should please frustrated residents concerned about the height and density of development Downtown, the City Council Tuesday threw out heights of 120 to 135 feet and instead ordered planners to look at the environmental impacts of future buildings at 84 feet for eight “opportunity sites.”

The council also told developers if they wanted to build something on the opportunity sites over 84 feet, they would have to do their own environmental impact report, which would increase construction costs.

In an emotionally-charged meeting, residents came out in droves to profess concern on height and density parameters for the Downtown Specific Plan environmental review. Many said they were afraid of losing ocean views and breezes, and believe denser buildings would bring more traffic to an already congested area.

After the Planning Commission had continued the matter several times, council members tackled the height and density parameters as part of the program environmental impact report for the plan. The Downtown Specific Plan is one of several required by the Land Use and Circulation Element, a guide to the next 20 years of Santa Monica development that was adopted almost exactly three years ago.

The opportunity sites located on Ocean Avenue include the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, the proposed Frank Gehry-designed hotel project and the Wyndham Hotel. Other opportunity sites include the Fred Segal site on Fifth Street and Broadway, the Big Blue Bus yard and more.

The sites are parcels city planners believe can handle larger projects in exchange for a rich suite of community benefits such as public open space, historic preservation and significant public art.

Councilmember Gleam Davis said she understood the recommendation by planners to look at heights of 120 to 135 feet, but it wasn’t clear why the council should study that height. She said it felt “somewhat arbitrary” to study them.

In the past, city officials have recommended capping the study at 130 feet, a height meant to maintain the prominence of the iconic Clock Tower Building in the middle of Downtown.

“I understand its relationship to the Clock Tower, I’m not sure it’s the kind of building we should base our entire Downtown Specific Plan,” Davis said. “I don’t think it deserves that reverence in all honesty.”

Davis said another concern she had was if City Hall studied the higher heights at the opportunity sites, it was sending a message to developers that those are the heights city officials are contemplating. She said City Hall would be encouraging developers to go above those heights.

Diana Gordon, co-chair of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, which has advocated for slow growth, said the council should make sure the environmental review reflects the community’s planning and not the developers’ planning.

“Developers aren’t planners,” Gordon said at the meeting. “Their job is to maximize the opportunity on their particular project. And a program (environmental impact report) is not a ‘what if?’ document. It’s not a let’s fantasize of what we can have in the city if you have all these developers have whatever applications they want.”

Davis said if somebody wanted to bring something forward that wasn’t in the parameters on the opportunity sites, the burden was on the applicant to “present us with an extraordinary project with extra benefits.” She gave the example of the Gehry hotel project, which several planning commissioners have complimented for its proposed design in recent weeks. Gehry’s project is a 22-story luxury hotel, referred to as the “Ocean Avenue Project,” that includes 125 hotel rooms and 22 condominiums as well as two stories of ground-floor restaurants and retail.

Attorney R.J. Comer, who represents Sears on Colorado Avenue, one of the opportunity sites, asked the council to increase the heights on the opportunity sites for purposes of environmental review. He encouraged the council to get as much data as possible to make an informed decision.

For the eight opportunity sites, council members also voted to change density to a maximum floor area ratio (FAR), or the ratio between the total floor area in a development and the amount of the parcel that a building uses, of up to 4.0 including a 1.0 housing bonus for lower trip-generating uses and traffic circulation improvements

The council also included two scenarios dealing with height: 50 to 84 feet for the two Ocean Avenue sites including the Gehry project and the Miramar Hotel, and studying 84 feet for all eight opportunity sites.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said City Hall could end up with projects that are higher in height, but would depend on council and community review and approval. The environmental review of the Downtown Specific Plan is intended to help the council make a final decision on what the law will be when building in Downtown.

For the majority of Downtown, council members also modified height to a maximum of 50 to 60 feet between Second Street and Ocean Avenue, the area north of Wilshire, between Fifth Court and Lincoln Court, and a maximum of 84 feet in the remaining central areas with a maximum FAR of 2.25 to 3.5, including a 1.0 bonus FAR for housing.

Council members also changed the density in the transit zone, with a 4.5 FAR including a 0.5 housing bonus, recommended a maximum height of 84 feet and modified the transit zone boundary that would go to Seventh Court on the east as it moved northward, add Broadway, head south to Sixth Street and at Sixth Street, continue north to include all of Santa Monica Boulevard, and head south to Third Street and align with Interstate 10 on the south side.

McKeown said there were three issues that would determine the final answer to the review: height, floor area ratio and how much is allowed on the sites, and incentives.

“We need housing,” McKeown said.

Winterer reminded council if it was taking out the 120 to 135 height factor, city officials would have to do an amendment to the plan for the City Hall-owned opportunity sites as well, meaning added costs to develop.

City officials said it would take six to nine weeks to develop a framework for the environmental study.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, council members voted to move discussion on adopting the Bergamot Area Plan to sometime next month.

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