The Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) — the framework for development and growth here over the next 30 years — was approved by City Council in 2010. Thousands of outdated zoning/building codes on the books have to be brought into alignment with the philosophy and direction described in the LUCE. In a few months, the final update to Santa Monica’s zoning codes will become official.
Typically, the LUCE called for development to be environmentally friendly, that new development be concentrated downtown, on major thoroughfares and transit lines. Historical preservation was determined to be important and much emphasis was given to the preservation of residential neighborhoods.
As always, the devil is in the details. With over 500 pages of codes to review and either change or discard plus writing new codes, it’s an arduous task. Special interests from neighborhood organizations to developer and various business interests wanted their demands to be reflected in new ordinances that will regulate everything from building size, shape, use, height and density to landscaping, sustainability and traffic management.
Reflecting the political bent of city leadership, rental housing continues to receive favored status. To relieve reliance on private vehicles, the new codes favor housing development on major bus and the Expo light rail line to encourage use of alternate transportation such as buses, trains, walking and bicycles by new residents.
The LUCE and its new codes also seek to alleviate a perceived jobs/housing imbalance in a community where commercial/retail development over the years and the jobs that were created as a result have outpaced the availability of local housing. The problem is that planners ignore the fact that everyone who works here may not want to live here.
Developers pushed for the opportunity to build large, bulky projects on major streets. Because these projects are primarily apartment buildings with ground floor retail, adding a minimum number of low income housing units will still trigger height and density bonuses. This will also ensure the votes of planning commissioners and City Council members who believe that a couple hundred low income apartments require incentives on top of the thousands of units of very profitable market rate housing that constitutes most development in Santa Monica.
Lucky for us, there are alert leaders with the city’s neighborhood groups who took the time and effort to analyze thousands of pages of detailed and highly technical ordinances. Their goal was to see what secrets — both good and bad — might be hidden therein. They, along with their members and governing boards, made recommendations enhancing the updates as well as suggesting specific changes that would result in codes more in harmony with those qualities that make their particular neighborhoods — and our city — special.
I’ve been provided documents by Northeast Neighbors (NN), Mid-City Neighbors (MCN), Friends of Sunset Park (FOSP) and the Ocean Park Association (OPA) and I’m impressed with their work.
They pointed out serious errors — or shenanigans — in staff’s work, like “Activity Centers” that, had they been implemented, would have meant more traffic and more density. Suggested changes even permitted commercial businesses (day care centers, bed and breakfasts, hotels, etc.) within single and multifamily residential neighborhoods. Residents drafted counter proposals that, if incorporated to the updates submitted to council, will encourage harmonious new development that’ll enhance our neighborhoods.
Mysterious elements cropped up during the rewriting process like the hundred or so “residential” parcels (mostly parking lots) mislabeled in LUCE maps as “commercial” and another hundred plus “inconsistent” and “nonconforming” lots whose development potential is highly controversial.
Changes allowed taller buildings along commercial boulevards, back-to-back with single and multifamily residences. With affordable housing bonuses, structures as high as four or five floors are possible. The so-called walls of mid-rise construction fronting streets like Wilshire Boulevard were universally panned by residents.
Another bad idea: giving a six foot height bonus (allowing an additional floor of housing beyond that which would normally be permitted) to developments that preserve a city-designated landmark or structure of merit in specific zoning districts. Why a height bonus? Isn’t preserving historic structures and adaptive reuse already smart development?
Out-of-touch planning commissioners suggested ten feet (an extra floor) of additional height for new developments on Main Street and Montana Avenue if they contained affordable housing. It took many complaints, but the commission finally voted that numbskull idea down.
Best of all, community leaders found and condemned language added surreptitiously to the updates that stated zoning changes were for “economic development” not “resident well-being.” My hat’s off to Zina Josephs (FSOP) and Tricia Crane and Amy Aukstikalnis (NN) and others for their diligence and perseverance. One lesson learned by all: Don’t trust City Hall and by all means, do your own research and assume that some bureaucrat or politician will screw us, given the opportunity.
Keep in mind, that if the lid isn’t kept on development, density, heights and community benefits that aren’t really benefits, the recourse will be another ballot measure mandating lower maximum heights throughout the city — heights such as 20 feet (two floors) in residential areas, 30 feet (three floors) on major boulevards and 40 feet (four floors) Downtown — with no height and density exceptions for developments with “low income housing” or bicycle racks.
The Planning Commission is expected to sign off on LUCE zoning changes on or around March 18. The, the whole kit and caboodle goes to City Council for review and approval sometime in April, according to the city’s Planning and Community Development website.
Bill Bauer can reached at email@example.com.