By Michael Feinstein, Inside/Outside. March 28, 2016

When we think about great cities we’ve visited around the world, the ones that we love walking around for hours, what are the things that make them great?

It’s often a mix of parks and plazas, cultural and civic destinations, and cool buildings, public art and great architecture; as well as fun places to shop, eat and people watch.

In Santa Monica’s downtown, we are undergoing a major transformation – from a downtown in the 1980s with the Third Street Promenade as its locus; to expanding activity to 2nd and 4th streets in the 1996 Bayside Specific Plan; to today’s draft Downtown Community Plan (DCP), stretching from Ocean Ave. to Lincoln Bl., and from Wilshire Bl. to Colorado Ave.

Focusing development downtown 

Since the early 1980s, its has been the de facto policy in Santa Monica to focus future residential growth in our downtown – to minimize redevelopment pressure upon our existing residential neighborhoods and resultant displacement of existing residents – and to positively concentrate future residential density near public transit and jobs. Can we do that and still make our downtown livable?

One key measure will be the number and character of our downtown open spaces. Some of them will be green, some will be hardscape. By the end of the DCP planning period in 2030, there should be a matrix of public open spaces that populate the downtown, and connect its edges to Wilshire Bl., the Mid-Cities neighborhood along Lincoln Bl. and the Gateway area next to Colorado Ave. capping over the I-10 freeway.

Opportunity sites and open space

When community meetings were first convened for the draft Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) in late 2011 (the precursor to the DCP), the term and concept “opportunity sites” was introduced. The idea was that the exceptional size, shape and location of eight public and/or privately-owned parcels might merit special planning attention, creativity and flexibility for their potential to achieve a range of public policy goals, including great urban design and open space.

As part of that concept, some exception to Santa Monica’s 84-foot height limit could be on the table on a case-by-case basis in exchange for additional public benefits. But even at 84-feet and below, the exceptional dimensions of a limited number of downtown parcels merit special planning consideration and creativity through the negotiated Development Agreement process.

At the same time, there were three private hotel/luxury condominium projects proposed for Ocean Ave., at heights absurdly beyond what most Santa Monicans would support – 195, 260 and 325 feet respectively. These ill-conceived, radical proposals recklessly colored the public perception of the public DSP process, and of the urban design debate overall, and generated much unnecessary blowback that continues today.

The current 84-foot height limit has served Santa Monica well, since it was established in 1984 as part of the City’s Land Use Element of its General Plan. Our downtown has thrived and grown since then. Any future exceptions made to the 84-foot limit – if ever – need to come out of a very considered public process.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the debate, especially since by law, developers – both public and private – can always propose their own height exceptions in limited cases. Presumably, we also want the debate to be community-driven through the DCP, and not solely on a project-by-project basis.

Open space within existing height limit at 500 Broadway

One of the eight opportunity sites identified in the DSP was the Fred Segal parcel at the southeast corner of 5th and Broadway – 500 Broadway – a parcel of 67,500 square feet, 150 feet wide x 450 feet long, extending in length along the east side of 5th Street.

In this case, the developer chose not to also ask for an exception to the 84-foot height limit. At the same time, the project attempts to address a number of public policy objectives, including significant residential housing (affordable and market rate), a community food market, public parking, sustainability and meaningful public open space. Can we get all of this and still have an attractive project? What kind of open space will come out of this process?

Future role of 5th and Broadway

At the first DSP community meeting in 2011, 500 Broadway was identified as a potential site to gain new public open space. Naturally as an instinctive nature lover, I immediately envisioned an open-to-the-sky green corner park.

What has been proposed is much different – a more urban Corner Plaza. It works. Designed with the nearby Expo light rail line station in mind, it strategically fits what 5th/Broadway can/should become – a crossroads for people coming to and from the nearby Expo light rail station at 4th/Colorado – not just downtown residents, but others walking across Lincoln from Mid-Cities, or from the north across Wilshire. This proposal’s open space facilitates just that, and creates a dynamic urban environment in the process.

The project provides publicly accessible ground floor open space equivalent to 20 percent of the parcel. To facilitate pedestrian flow, the ground floor retail and outdoor dining along 5th Street and Broadway is set back at least 12 feet from the sidewalk and often much more, and there will be flexible/moveable free public seating areas throughout. Then, set back further from the corner on the 5th Street side, will be an open-to-the-sky courtyard with more chairs and tables, leading to a residential lobby (and onwards to bike parking adjacent to the alley).

The outdoor seating/eating/walking/people-watching continues along 5th Street, with an outdoor Market Court and South Patio. This will also fill a need expressed by those living in the seniors building across the street, to have a safe and accessible outdoor place to eat and drink, especially in the earlier and later hours.

What kind of open space?

The public policy question with this Corner Plaza (and a fraction of the Market Court and South Patio) is that on the ground level it is open to the air, but with six stories of housing above.

Should it count as part of the project’s required open space, if it isn’t open to the sky? In this case the answer is yes. The Corner Plaza creates quality public space, it facilitates a critical crossroads function – and because its on the sunny side of the street, the overhang provides shade from direct sun, but still allows daylight and temperate air to fill the space.

If we didn’t allow the housing over the Corner Plaza, then the rest of the project would have to be much denser and less appealing, and/or the community benefits fewer. Right now there are four residential buildings proposed above the ground floor level (housing 249 market rate apartments), and 27-30 foot wide openings between each. None of this is claimed for the open space requirements for the project. But the openness is great for our future neighbors (and their visitors), and it makes the buildings feel better scaled and more open to light and air from the street.

Designing a project in this way also enables a hefty and wide-ranging community benefits package, that includes an additional $1.7 million that the city can use toward new parks land acquisition – and keeps the project within the 84-foot height limit. Instead of asking for an exception to the City’s height limit – in order to build multiple stories of multi-million dollar luxury condominiums to finance their project by privatizing our skyline, as have the aforementioned developers along Ocean Ave. – the developers of 500 Broadway purchased a nearby property along Lincoln Bl. (and contributed gap financing), where 64 deed-restricted desperately needed affordable housing units would be constructed.

Having been approved 6-1 by the Planning Commission, the 500 Broadway project is now headed for final approval to the City Council.

Future open-to-the-sky downtown public spaces

Looking ahead, major open-to-the-sky open space opportunities in the DCP planning area include the City project at 4th/5th/Arizona, the massive Vons site along Lincoln Bl. (when it eventually redevelops) and the publicly-owned land immediately south of the Expo station at 4th/Colorado – as well as immediately adjacent between Ocean Ave. and 5th St., when we cap over the top of the I-10 freeway with parks and plazas.

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.