A dangerous rise in development agreements

Development Agreements

Curb your DA’s. No, we’re not talking about District Attorneys, but rather the propensity of our planning staff to negotiate Development Agreements (DAs) with the owners of substantial chunks of our fair city. These agreements invariably allow development that goes beyond zoning restrictions, i.e. heights, setbacks, buildable area (FAR), parking requirements, and has a negative impact on our City, its residents, and their quality of life, in the name of “Community Benefits.” In the process, the Zoning Ordinance, the Land Use Circulation Element (LUCE) and any resident-friendly Downtown Specific Plan recommendations will be sacrificed. Additionally, the sustainability of our infrastructure will be compromised, and require costly capital improvements.

Between 1984 – 2009, only eight major DAs were sought, by application. Since adopting the current general plan in 2010, the City staff have processed 61 DAs. Not one of these projects in the downtown area or along our boulevards is being designed within the zoning codes. By all accounts, there remain at least 30 more DAs in some stage of negotiation. Is this the City of Santa Monica envisioned in the LUCE?

Every DA application requires a minimum of seven public hearings in a two to three year process. The Hines project took seven years, in what should have been a 6 – 12 month process, provided they had adhered to the prevailing code requirements. It is an expensive and unfair process, and developers should be forewarned that they cannot negotiate beyond the existing requirements based on an expectation that they will be able to build larger (greater profit), by simply including some “community benefits.” This process runs counter to good zoning policy and is often referred to as “spot zoning.” Spot zoning is allowing special building rights on one site, that are denied to others within the same zone — unless they provide specific “public benefits.”

One case is the particularly egregious, half a million sq. ft. multi-use development currently planned on City-owned property at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue. From my vantage point and experience, this is a project where the City has not exacted the maximum benefit for the use of our City-owned property. For instance, the City should retain the responsibility for developing and managing the sorely-needed subterranean parking, while leaving the majority of the plaza area as a tree-filled, “Urban Plaza.” The remainder of the two-acre site could be leased for a much smaller-scaled development. This is just one of 30 DA projects in the process of being finalized. There are more that are currently under construction or in the building permit phase.

Another particularly egregious case involves the redevelopment of the Village Trailer Park property that involved the eviction of most of the low income tenants, some being relocated. The developer provided the City with $2.5 million in “community benefits” in the proposal. He had paid $5 million for the property plus some additional funds used to create a design package that was then presented to the City. His negotiations with staff eventually resulted in an approved DA. The negotiated entitlements were then “merchandised” (for want of a better word) to another developer for around $62 million. Here the City was terribly short-changed in its pursuit of “community benefits,” and we suffered the loss of needed affordable housing.

These are just a few examples of what one might consider the “buying” of spot zoning.

I do not believe that the state legislature had this in mind when it empowered California cities and towns with the DA as a planning tool. Below is an excerpt from the law, and what was the intent.

(a) The lack of certainty in the approval of development projects can result in a waste of resources, escalate the cost of housing and other development to the consumer, and discourage investment in and commitment to comprehensive planning which would make maximum efficient utilization of resources at the least economic cost to the public

(b) Assurance to the applicant for a development project that upon approval of the project, the applicant may proceed with the project in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations and subject to conditions of approval, will strengthen the public planning process, encourage private participation in comprehensive planning, and reduce the economic costs of development.

c) The lack of public facilities, including, but not limited to, streets, sewerage, transportation, drinking water, school, and utility facilities, is a serious impediment to the development of new housing. Whenever possible, applicants and local governments may include provisions in agreements whereby applicants are reimbursed over time for financing public facilities.

The lawmakers were looking to improve the development process from both a planning and an economic standpoint, for the benefit of the citizens of its communities, and not as a tool to enrich the real estate interests and the retirement funds for the City’s employees. Note the line, “ … in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations.”

So one must ask the question, why is the City staff complicit in a process that threatens the quality of life for so many of our residents? Their actions subvert existing ordinances to the benefit of developers, and the international architects who design them.

Perhaps staff equates square footage to increased tax base and therefore job and pension security. Could they be so short-sighted? Or perhaps they simply don’t live here and have no personal vested interest in how such intense development impacts the lives of those who do live here. This includes the aged, children, and those who find it more and more difficult to safely move through a town that is already too congested, as it swells daily to accommodate more than 200,000 workers and tourists.

Our new City Manager has wisely, and perhaps even courageously, suggested that enough is quite enough regarding the use of DAs. They encourage the over-development that is eroding the fabric and low scale of our beachfront community. Santa Monica is a regional gem that must be respected and protected.

Samuel Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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