Santa Monica City Hall (Daniel Archuleta

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. October 27, 2015

The public planning process around the 4th/5th/Arizona mega-parcel goes back many years. The City first started purchasing properties to ‘assemble’ this extraordinary parcel, which makes up about 4/5 of the entire city block between 4th St. and 5th St., and Santa Monica Bl. and Arizona Ave. – back in 2007. By 2011, the City had purchased all the properties it hoped, and commenced a community input process, featuring a Listening Phase and an Alternatives Phase, after which proposals were solicited from development/design teams to begin to implement the vision and a Development Team was hired.

I went to those early Listening and Alternatives meetings. It was exciting and refreshing to think and dream comprehensively, beyond the possibilities of the standard 50 x 150 foot downtown commercial property, to the opportunities presented by almost an entire city block.

I thought of cool food markets and great passageways I’d seen in other cities. I assumed some level of hotel (on the higher floors) would help pay for it, and that there would be affordable housing and arts/culture. I also assumed there would be a nice sized ‘chunk’ of open space, and the ice rink (in winter) would remain. But I didn’t know how it would all fit together.

In 2013 the City Council directed the Development Team to study two scenarios, one at the city’s existing height limit of 84 feet and one at 148 feet, which would require a General Plan Amendment. In 2014 the City Council gave direction to staff and the Development Team to begin the public entitlement process with the 148-foot scenario as the base project.

Which brings us to tonight’s City Council meeting, where the Council is going to direct environmental review. What specifically will it asked to be reviewed? It seems like the main questions in the public are how high, what mix of uses and why not a park?

How High?

The premise around the height of the project is that the multi-level, public open spaces and views are made possible by going above 84 feet. Given that the Council chose not to further study the 84-foot high alternative, at this point let’s accept the premise that more height is giving the City more options on design. But is 148 feet the right height?

Part of it is the context. In a community that values nature and ‘the public’ like Santa Monica, key questions are what is the perspective from the beach, from Tongva Park and from the end of the Santa Monica Pier? Buildings that are out of scale from those perspectives should be rethought. (That’s why I don’t see the City approving a lot of new extra height for hotels along Ocean Ave.)

But a project like that proposed for 4th/5th/Arizona, even if built above 84 feet, may not be seen from those places, depending upon how high its built. The EIR needs to study these site lines at both 148″ and a lower height, and provide drawings/simulations at both where there is something to report.

Part of the context is also the ‘feeling’ on the street. That is harder to measure, and for different people, it will simply be different. But that’s another reason to study a shorter height. The only debate isn’t 84 feet versus 148 feet. It’s also whether 148 feet should be he only option studied as an alternative to 84 feet.

The Development Team’s proposed height of 148 feet is driven by its own specific interconnected mix of uses and goals and objectives and finances, which have in all good faith been drawn from the public process. But that process continues with the environmental review, where we study some important, but fine differences.

That’s why the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should study a project shorter than the 148 feet, maybe two stories, and understand the trade-offs. What uses might have to change to make the project pencil. What are the trade-offs in public benefits? What happens to the public views near the top? What happens to the public views from the bottom? Can we run simulated views for buildings at different heights?

What Mix of Uses?

Public sentiment in response to the Development Team’s initial proposal, has been to reduce the amount of commercial office space. This would reduce the amount of traffic generated by the project, as well as to reduce the pressure on the city’s housing supply by exacerbating its jobs-rich/housing-poor imbalance.

Staff evaluated changes include eliminating all office use, replacing all office uses with market-rate residential or hotel uses, reducing the office use by 50 percent, and replacing 50 percent the office use with hotel use. They found that the approach that caused the least amount of public benefits to be lost was conversion of one half of the office space to hotel.

This alternative should be studied in the EIR, not just because of its finances, but because its does two additional things. First, converting some office space to hotel is an easy way of addressing traffic volume and congestion, because visitors drive less and not at peak hour. By reducing the parking demand, it also makes the project less expensive to build.

But its important that some of the office space is retained, as presence of office workers during the day creates foot traffic and enhances the public open spaces, and provide customers at the market/eateries on the site.

The Staff report suggests potential Council motions could include directing staff to work with the Development Team to “replace as much office space with hotel space as possible, while maintaining the programmed open space, affordable housing, and as much public parking as possible.”

What about affordable housing? The project already contains 48 units affordable to households making no more than 50 percent of the area median income – a deep level of affordability that can address needs in several target populations, including artists, seniors, workers in the local food services and hospitality industries, and those on the City’s Master Wait List for Affordable Housing.

Such an opportunity for it that doesn’t come very often. For this reason, is there a scenario in which the City defers ground rent for a period of time in return for even housing? Are dollars better spent for housing in this project, or kept to possibly fund another housing project somewhere in the City some day? Can this also be explored in the EIR process?

What About a Great Park?

Many of the world’s great cities have great urban green/open spaces. The Staff report argues that a successful public urban park on the site would require a significant level of design and programming, similar to what has made other urban parks successful ($1-$3 million per year, depending on design and level of programming). Then there are the capital costs to build the park ($10-$25 million) and $17-$20 million to build the parking under the park, although some of that could be offset by the capitalized value of the net parking revenue. Then there would be $5-10 million to buy out the banks with long-term leases on-site.

While there is much in theory to recommend an urban park, without an identified funding source, I don’t see that alternative swaying the Council at this late date, with paid-for community benefits also on the table.

And while its not the same as laying in the grass and looking up at the blue sky, the project would create approximately 51,000 square feet of public open space on the first two levels, and 37,300 square feet of semi-public open space on the hotel terrace, the latter giving views to the public that are mostly are reserved for executives and luxury condos.

Compare that to one of hotel projects proposed for Ocean Ave., which said it would charge people just to ride the elevator to their tiny viewing deck, up on top of multiple stories of multi-million luxury condos for whom our skyline would become their own.

When we consider as a community, if and under what circumstances we make any exceptions to our 84 foot height limit, which has served our city very well for over 30 years, its always important to ask who benefits.

‘Height’ rather than ‘girth’ in this project creates a series of stepped-up, multi-level urban public and semi-public spaces. If that’s the principle before us right now, then asking “what exact height and mix of uses is the best local application on this site of that principle?” seems to be what our EIR should be focused on.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

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