The fate of Wilshire Boulevard, and much of the city’s future development, is now officially in the hands of the City Council following the conclusion of Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.
The commission’s task for the night was to review five proposed amendments to the Land Use and Circulation Element. By the end of the night (or, technically, the start of the next morning), the commission accepted the official land use designation for about 115 lots, accepted a new Official Districting Map, recommended denser development of Wilshire Boulevard that includes activity centers, and approved modifications to the way projects are approved when they involved a city-designated landmark.
The seven-hour meeting was the last time the commission would discuss the long-gestating Zoning Code Update and LUCE amendments, with the final discussions now moving to City Council.
The entire process has become highly political. Opponents have rallied around a few key causes, such as reducing the proposed density for Wilshire Boulevard, opposing activity centers and questioning changes to some kinds of land-use designation.
Property designated as an activity center can be developed more intensely with the approval of an area plan, development agreement and appropriate community benefits. Land around the centers is often zoned as “Tier 3,” allowing the largest size of development.
Supporters say the areas will cluster growth near transit hubs, provide walkable services for residents and create much needed housing. Opponents say the developments will worsen traffic, damage neighborhoods and destroy Santa Monica’s character.
Representatives of both camps spoke at the meeting.
“We can still have plenty of new affordable housing, we can still have all kinds of housing along Wilshire without Tier 3, without activities and with mixed-use boulevard low,” resident Taffy Patton said.
Andrew Hoyer said community benefits rarely benefit the right people.
“They always seem to benefit the developers, always, every single time, the community benefits are not truly community benefits,” he said. “We don’t really see them, we see the increase in traffic.”
Resident Laura Morton said Santa Monica’s transit options are not robust enough to justify the kind of development allowed under the new code.
“To pretend we have the kind of transit that would make a very high, urban-like density workable and preserve the quality of the community is a specious argument,” she said.
Morton said her neighborhood opposed the proposals and said reduced density could meet everyone’s needs without limiting development to single-story buildings.
“I hear over and over again that Tier 3 is not the answer for Wilshire Boulevard,” she said, “and I find the argument is, it’s either going to be mattress stores or 70 feet high. But that’s specious. There is something in between with mixed usage low.”
Resident Michael Cahn disagreed.
“I think living in a city is living not only in your neighborhood, but also in the more developed parts. If you want to live in a kind of puny suburban city, Santa Monica it is not,” he said. “There’s a lot of complaints about traffic in the community, I don’t see it — I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just don’t see it … One reason traffic is pretty dense maybe these days in some areas is gas is pretty cheap, and cheap gas produces more traffic.”
Cahn said he is a member of the Wilmont association but was unhappy with the group’s public stance.
“I don’t feel comfortable there anymore,” he said. “I want to assure you there are other voices in the neighborhood that are more relaxed about developing our neighborhood and developing our city and making the best of what is available.”
Several former city officials spoke in favor of the activity centers and denser development.
“The nature of Wilshire and our other major boulevards are something of a strip of retail and other kinds of things — most of it not very inspired,” said former Planning Commissioner Gwynne Pugh. “There are occasional bright spots, but not the place a lot of people walk and part of the reason for that quite frankly is there isn’t enough density. For a block long of retail, a long block, couple of blocks it needs something in the order of 1,500 households to generate sufficient economic activity for those places to exist. That can happen by putting two-, three-, four-story buildings within a quarter-mile radius or densifying the boulevards themselves, in which case you can now walk to these places rather than having to drive to them. As it currently exists, almost every retail use along Wilshire is sustained because people have to drive to it.”
Staff had recommended removal of the activity centers and dropping Tier 3 from several areas. Commissioner Richard McKinnon proposed a vote on the staff recommendation and lost 5-1. A subsequent vote affirmed the commission’s desire to keep Tier 3 and activity centers in the LUCE.
However, the commission did vote to reclassify so called “A” lots back to residential. The lots had been changed to a commercial designation, much to the distain of many neighbors.
City Council will discuss the proposed amendments at a future meeting. If any resident files an appeal of the Planning Commission decision, the council will be able to revisit the activity center discussion. If not, they will be limited to discussion of the amendments forwarded to them by the commission.