Last Wednesday night I watched our Planning Commission complete the last of 33 public hearings on our city’s new draft zoning ordinance. Yes, that’s right: thirty-three!

During over a year’s meetings, the commission spent more than 140 hours on the code’s many details, including hearing testimony from over 550 speakers. Besides that in-person input, the commission received thousands of emails and letters, most of which were also copied to us at the City Council. Why? Because now, at last, it is time for your directly elected City Council to represent you in amending and adopting a final version of our new zoning ordinance.

After last year’s signature-gathering campaign against the oversized and traffic-generating Hines project, development became the primary issue as voters chose a new City Council.

Elections matter.

With our new Council, we now make final decisions in a process that has incorporated massive public input over a stretch of almost 12 years. First, we created a new Land Use and Circulation Element, a task that took six and a half years. For the five years since then, we have been operating under an interim zoning ordinance, which by law cannot be extended any further. It is time to bring everyone together to decide the future of our beloved Santa Monica.

This new zoning code will determine where new construction will be allowed, what it must provide to our community, what it will look like, and how our existing neighborhoods will be protected. This decision will affect us all for years to come, and is one of the reasons I’m honored to be your Mayor in this crucial year.

I believe in public process, and the ability in our democracy for a community to wisely determine its own future. We know the economic opportunities in Santa Monica are very enticing to those who wish to invest in our city. Now is our chance to determine what we want from future development, for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren. Whatever is built under the new zoning code will become the Santa Monica in which they grow up.

Some major choices confront the Council. After the so-called “Subway to the Sea” was delayed by decades, City staff recommended we remove proposed activity centers from Wilshire Boulevard. The Planning Commission majority disagreed. Now the City Council will have to decide.

What residents may not know, though, is that many of the potential threats to our quality of life already have been removed from the draft zoning code. To protect existing neighborhoods and avoid resident displacement, allowable units per lot for replacement projects have been further reduced, and parcel consolidations limited. Maps were modified to retain residential zoning.

Most development review thresholds were cut, meaning even smaller projects will require full discretionary review, and public noticing requirements were increased, to cover up to four times as many neighbors. More uses than ever will require a neighborhood-protecting Conditional Use Permit.

Still concerned? When we on the City Council look at the new zoning code starting in mid-April, we will have one more opportunity to weigh effects on neighborhoods and evaluate the cumulative impacts of change. This is a task in which we need your help. No one knows and appreciates a city more than those of us who live here.

I appeal to us all to make this a productive conversation. We must work to identify common interests, not just stake out positions that don’t respect our shared future as one community, living together.

Recent opinion columns published here in the Daily Press have articulated two very different points of view — from unrestrained enthusiasm about maximized growth to suggestions that residents might want to abandon the zoning process in favor of planning a referendum against a zoning code that hasn’t even been approved yet.

I’m willing to guess most Santa Monicans fall between those two extremes, and I hope to convene an intense and productive conversation over the next two months that lets everyone be heard.

A recent column from the business community encouraging full speed ahead on development may underestimate how very engaged residents have become in protecting neighborhood quality of life, as I pointed out to the Chamber of Commerce two months ago in my State of the City address.

The call for a referendum on an as-yet unwritten zoning ordinance, on the other hand, may underestimate our residents’ long-proven ability to make public process work for us through participation, not negation.

You clearly care about this wonderful city we live in (or you wouldn’t have read this far!). Will you join us now in making sure the City Council makes the very best decision for you? Hold us accountable. Give us your input. Help shape the outcome. You may be surprised at how well this turns out.

Mayor Kevin McKeown can be reached at kevin@mckeown.net. The address for the entire Council is council@smgov.net. City Council zoning hearings begin April 14.

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