By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. March 07, 2016

Santa Monica’s most recent multi-year debate over maximum allowable heights in our downtown has gone on since 2004, when the Macerich Company first proposed twin 22-story condominium towers, as part of its proposed tear down and rebuild of Santa Monica Place. Then came proposals (by others) for three different hotel/luxury condominium projects along Ocean Ave., for as high as 325, 260 and 195 feet at their highest points, respectively.

All of these proposals have come at the same time that the City’s official maximum allowable building height has been 84 feet (i.e. six to seven stories), a limit in place since 1984, when the City ‘down-zoned’ as part of that year’s Land Use Element update of the City’s General Plan. Then in 2010, the Land Use (and Circulation) Element was updated for the first time since 1984. But the question of maximum allowable heights was deferred to a separate ‘specific plan’ for the downtown area, called the Downtown Community Plan (DCP).

Last week the Planning Commission reviewed the draft DCP now circulating in the community. Normally City Planning Department Staff would present such a draft to the Commission. But reflective of the highly-charge nature of the City’s overall debate on development and heights, the draft DCP was presented by City Manager Rick Cole – an extremely rare occurrence in Santa Monica, for a City Manager to being making such a presentation.

A new City Manager and the attempt to bring clarity

Since Cole has come to Santa Monica as City Manager in Spring 2015, he has sought to bring what he hopes will be more transparency, certainty and clarity to the planning process — and his presentation included how he hoped that would occur as a result of the proposed DCP. That spurred a fascinating and extended Socratic interchange between Cole and Planning Commission Chair Richard McKinnon, over (a) how the DCP would reduce the number of negotiated ‘development agreements’ (in which existing maximum heights and other development standards could be negotiated away by the City Council in exchange for additional community benefits) and (b) whether there should be separate, higher allowable maximum heights (up to 130 feet) for three distinct large and irregularly-sized parcels in the downtown.

Normally during a public hearing, the staff presents and then the public speaks, and members of the public often lament they wish they could ask various questions directly of City Staff. But in this case, McKinnon’s line of questioning served that purpose, as McKinnon’s history as a slow-growth (and sustainability) advocate on the Commission (and as a City Council candidate), meant that his questions were reflective of the sentiments of many in the community. Fortuitously, the thoughtful, principled and sometimes forceful back and forth between Cole and McKinnon served to raise issues and solicit responses that many would have sought directly from the City Manager, had they had the opportunity.

Normally, development standards (including maximum height limits) are crafted to guide development on regularly sized parcels, with the regular size of such parcels making such predictable development standards reasonable and generally applicable.

Cole and the DCP proposed to take on the highly charged question of whether 84 feet should be a maximum everywhere in the city, or whether there should be a limited number of exceptions in distinct cases where large and irregularly sized parcels might present specific opportunities for exceptional design and outstanding community benefits.

How tall is the right height?

There is certainly a reasonable urban planning debate over whether building ‘higher and thinner’ with the same amount of building mass, can lead to more interesting structures than the same amount of mass in a shorter and wider building.

In response, the DCP proposed considering maximum heights of up to 130 feet for three such parcels – for redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel at Ocean/Wilshire, for a proposed hotel/condominium project at Ocean/Santa Monica Bl., and for the City-sponsored project at the City-owned site at 4th/5th/Arizona.

Cole said the reason City Staff choose to recommend considering up to 130 feet was in part to bring a reality check to developers who had seized upon the ‘taller and thinner is better’ argument to propose even greater heights, far exceeding the comfort level of even those who saw a place for modestly greater heights, let alone those in the community who feel no building should be higher than 84 feet.

Among the Planning Commissioners, three did not support going higher than 84 feet in any circumstance, one supported considering up to 130 feet on all three parcels, another on only two of the three, while two other commissioners wanted more information on the potential public benefits in exchange for extra height. Hence, there were not four votes to take an official Commission position on maximum heights in the DCP at this point.

McKinnon queried Cole on the City’s role as both developer and regulator of heights for the proposed project at 4th/5th/Arizona, which Cole admitted was an “awkward straddle”, but one that existed before the DCP proposed the 130-foot limit.

At the same time, Cole stressed how critical it was that rather than considering exceptions to the 84-foot limit on a project-by-project basis, it was important for the community to have that debate up-front in the DCP and then stick to it.

Yet several Commissioners reminded that even if the community agrees upon a given height limit within the DCP, developers are still free under state law to propose future exceptions to such limits, through what is called a ‘text amendment’ to the General Plan – a lengthy, costly and complicated option to be sure, but one that exists nonetheless.

Planning, politics and you

So where does that leave us? In Santa Monica, planning and politics cannot be divorced from each other, as our long history of initiative and referenda on development suggests, let alone how debates over development can shape City Council elections and Planning Commission appointments.

From a pure planning perspective, keeping the option open for some flexibility on heights in response to unique circumstances is not unreasonable – and having ‘consideration of up to 130 feet’ (or some other level) in the DCP as part of the City’s discretionary approval process is not the same as automatically allowing it ‘by right.’

Yet given how many questions at last week’s hearing came from Planning Commissioners about exactly what such ‘consideration’ would mean in the DCP, its inclusion as a option in the DCP could be interpreted as its de facto affirmation, by many community members who do not have the luxury of being able to follow City process on the micro-level that Planning Commissioners and City Councilmembers do. And at the same time, signature gathering has just started on a proposed ballot measure that would mandate public votes on a range of developments in the City. How residents see what height limits are included in the DCP could affect that signature gathering.

All of this means that in the attempt to bring more transparency, certainty and clarity to the City’s planning process, nothing yet is certain nor clear about maximum allowable heights in our downtown.

For that reason, it’s your time to get involved in this important community debate. before the DCP returns to the Planning Commission and City Council for approval in May and June. For a list of DCP public meetings where you can provide input and to comment on the Plan on-line, go to www.smgov.net/Departments/PCD/Plans/Downtown-Community-Plan/.


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.