The Planning Commission meets Wednesday evening in City Council chambers to discuss and review a highly controversial development planned for downtown Santa Monica — the Plaza at Santa Monica.

It’s a 12-story (148 feet), 420,000-square-foot multi-use development consistingof about 225 hotel rooms, up to 220,000 square feet of office space, up to 40,000 square feet of retail space, 48 affordable apartments, approximately 12,000 square feet of cultural space with a proposed 4,800 square-foot mezzanine, approximately 51,000 square feet of public open space, and an estimated 1,100 parking spaces within a four-level subterranean parking garage.

All of this is to be built on city-owned land —currently home to ICE skating rink, parking lots and a couple of banks. The City of Santa Monica owns the site and spent well over $100 million, including interest and other payments, for the land between Fourth and Fifth streets and Arizona Avenue. When purchased a few years ago, city officials had no use in mind for the space.

By way of a refresher, this was the project that consisted of one large contiguous structure set diagonally on the property featuring angled, upper floorplates. It’s an impressive and massive proposal and absolutely in the wrong place. Most residents want a project more in scale with the present Downtown area — one with a maximum 84 feet height, preferably lower.

A nervous City Council asked the developer, well-connected Metropolitan Pacific Capital, to come back with an alternate 84-foot high proposal. But, with the alternate design, “public benefits” such as the 48 units of low-income housing were pared back along with other favored elements. Council unanimously instructed the developer to proceed with its 12-floor proposal as it offered so much more — affordable housing?

To make things worse, this major project has City Hall momentum without a Downtown Specific Plan in place. The opposition to this project is growing by the day and it will become as big of a lightning rod asthe Hines project in the Bergamot area became, if not bigger.

Between recently approved business-friendly zoning code revisions and now, a Downtown development that far exceeds the public’s desire for a lower level, less dense and less imposing development, I predict that there will be a referendum/ballot measure constructed around a “two, three, four” model – two floor maximum height in residential areas, three floor maximums on major streets and four floors maximum height in the Downtown area.

Why do I predict this? Because our city leaders ignore us at their own peril.

The Devil was in the details

The updates to the city’s zoning codes have been completed and few people are happy with the final results. We’re going to have to live with these codes for the next 25 years or whenever the city’s master plan is updated, again. It’s unlikely that council will revisit some of the more controversial codes to better protect and preserve our neighborhoods in the near future considering that it unanimously approved the new codes to begin with.

The major complaint has to do with revised zoning codes that would allow commercial developers to provide less parking on new commercial buildings built on or near transit stops and major thoroughfares “well served by transit.” The term for downsizing parking is sometimes called “unbundling” because tenants can lease space — office or commercial space in this case – without leasing on-site parking. Tenants can lease on-site parking by paying extra for parking — like ordering ala carte.

The thinking is that charging tenants for parking will incentivize them to (1) stop driving private vehicles, (2) drive less often and (3) use transit, walk or bicycle. Unfortunately. that’s wishful thinking. Persons leasing space in developments without free on-site parking end up parking on neighboring streets for free thus contributing to traffic, noise pollution and exacerbating an already serious shortage of parking space in many neighborhoods.

In a recent news release, the slow growth Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) called reducing parking requirements, “a gift to developers in the guise of innovation. Thinking that “If people don’t have parking, supposedly they won’t drive cars… is magical thinking” and will only exacerbate our city’s current traffic and parking problems.

Other concerns center on commercial intrusion into single-family neighborhoods that had always been “off limits.” These changes include permitting for-profit daycare centers to operate seven days a week in single family neighborhoods — with expanded hours. Despite dropping of larger “Tier 3” developments on Wilshire Boulevard and eliminating destination developments such as shopping centers disguised as “activity centers,” the new codes allow more density on Wilshire and other major streets than before.

Two medical marijuana dispensaries on Wilshire is still a questionable zoning practice. I wonder if the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce had pot shops in mind when they called for more development on the street to increase its vibrancy and zest as a destination.

Conditional Use Permits (CUP) that permit beer, wine or full bar alcohol service in commercial businesses will be approved by the Director of Planning without any public discussion. Bad move. Previously alcohol CUPs were reviewed in public before the Planning Commission. Knowing city staff, this is another curse that will come back to haunt residents.

An ordinance authorizing all the new codes will be subject to a second council reading in three weeks. After a mandatory 30-day wait period, the new codes will be considered “official” unless a public referendum or a court action halts it.

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com.

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