The “Broken” D.A. Process

Santa Monica is undergoing a period of sustained growth. But it has reached a crossroads where even bus shelters can’t be designed successfully. Why are we at this intersection?

We have a city budget that drives development and planning codes allowing Development Agreements (D.A.s) to override our zoning codes. Instead of following the zoning code, it has become the standard for developers to request D.A.’s allowing substantial height and density increases up to 83% in exchange for “community benefits.” This exchange is destroying Santa Monica’s quality of life while providing few benefits to residents. It results in agreements made with little transparency and selling our city assets – held in trust for our children! Circumventing zoning requirements has created a toxic atmosphere with reduction of blue skies, mobility, and increased water demand during the most serious drought in California history.

The original purpose of the D.A. was to eliminate uncertainty where zoning codes and/or specific plans were not yet approved. But in the rush for short term economic gain, the City has become blind to the long term effects of their policies – more traffic, higher utility rates, streets in shadow, and the loss of the soul of our city. Developers live by the rhythm and mantra of the cash register instead of the songs of birds and blue skies.

Between 1984 – 2009, only 8 D.A.’s were applied for. Since adopting the current general plan in 2010, the D.A. process created a tsunami of activity and 61 D.A.’s have been approved or are pending. Not a single project in the downtown area or along the boulevards is being designed within the zoning code. Every application requires a minimum of 7 public meetings in a 2 – 3 year process (7 years in the Hines case) instead of what could be a simple 3 – 6 month staff review process. This is not the City you envisioned in the LUCE.

Our city planning staff has had 4 years to develop specific plans for the Downtown, Bergamot and Memorial Park areas – plans dictating land use for years to come. This process has been largely delayed allowing developers to push through dense and traffic burdensome projects.

To offset increased height, density and traffic with community benefits, the City’s emphasis is providing 10 – 20% affordable apartment units within each development and generating additional tax revenue. This unfortunately comes at the expense of open space, design, traffic, additional required infrastructure, etc.

Economically this is a poor exchange. In the case of the Village Trailer Park debacle, the city receives $2.5m in “community benefits.” In exchange, the developer paid less than $5m for the property and, upon receiving D.A. approval, sold it for +/-$62m! In other words, while developers are eating cake, we’re getting crumbs. What makes this process even worse is pitting community groups (e.g Conservancy, History Museum, Hotel Hospitality Training Academy, Cultural Arts, etc.) against each other in pursuit of “community benefit” revenues and thereby helping the developers gain city approval.

Let’s look at the effectiveness of the D.A. process to date with recent examples of this rush to judgement –

  • 2 mixed-use projects at Lincoln and Colorado with 75% density increase, where 65% are family apartments but less than 1,500 sq ft of rooftop play area is allocated for children, no nearby schools or parks within the recommended ¼ mile, and 22% reduction in required parking but no curb parking for blocks in all 4 directions!!
  • Village Trailer Park, in addition to the windfall profit the developer made, is another project with no meaningful play area or even grounded landscape for 140 family apartments in an otherwise concrete jungle, with height and density totally in excess of LUCE and Bergamot plans.

  • 2 hotels at 5th and Colorado provide a “gateway” to downtown from the Expo station at Colorado with designs looking more like gulag housing developments rather than saying “Welcome to Santa Monica.”

  • Mixed-use development replacing Fred Segal’s at 5th and Broadway with overbearing height, repetitive mass and density creating narrow, shaded canyons for open space.

  • Hotel at 7th & Wilshire – 7 stories, 80 feet high and covering 2/3’s of the entire block with the “community benefit” package being little more than converting the historic corner office building to a hotel use?

  • The Agensys D.A. at Olympic and Stewart where parking concessions saved the developer $4m in costs but resulted in the developer having to rent 100 parking spaces at adjacent Bergamot Art Center and Transit Station, where future parking will be sorely needed.

  • Santa Monica Plaza at Arizona and 4th/5th bought by the city with the help of state funds for the purpose of retaining the ice-skating rink, now designed as a massive private 12-story mixed-use project instead of a town square while adding 1,200 cars to the downtown traffic soup.

  • And, finally, the Hines Papermate project, approved by City Council after 7 years of indecisiveness and pleas from LA City and LA County to avoid creating monumental traffic issues. The City allowed a 40% reduction of required parking with proximity to Expo despite the fact that their EIR showed only 3.1% of employees using the train. That saved Hines $36m in garage construction while the city realized $2m annually in community benefits over a 55 year period. The adjacent residential neighborhood was left to absorb 1,250 cars.

This is what’s taking place in your city on a weekly basis – reviewing projects that have an abundance of serious flaws in return for “peanuts.” The City’s residents are not being fairly compensated. In an 11/29/12 email exchange with city manager Rod Gould, he writes that “… the D.A. process … quite frankly works well for no one as it stands – not the applicants, public, Planning Commission, City Council or staff.”

The bottom line… the City needs to do away with the D.A. process completely and adopt a concise, creative zoning ordinance based on a simple 30/40/50 ft concept – 30 ft height in residential neighborhoods, 40 ft for boulevard mixed-use, and 50 ft in downtown. In the end this will benefit developers by creating certainty and saving time and cost, as well as benefitting the City and its residents. Added permit fees can make up for the marginal community benefits we’re currently receiving at a high cost to the liveability of the City. Otherwise, taking a short term view is a long term mistake. And quoting Gandhi – “the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Ron Goldman FAIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow