New Plan, Old Concerns

Downtown Specific Plan

The draft of the new Downtown Community Plan has now been made available to the public for input. This draft is the result of years of effort, re-writing and reconfiguring. Now, after the arrival of our new City Manager, an attempt has been made to simplify the plan and reduce its size to something more manageable and easier to understand.

At first glance it appears to be a worthy effort, with many excellent improvements. However, questions persist about many of the Plan’s details, and about how well some of its specific proposals align with concerns expressed in our community. Here are a few of them.

1. The Plan would allow certain projects containing up to 100,000 square feet to attain approval through the Planning Commission and then City staff, and not by City Council. This process, called Development Review, includes public review and approval by the Planning Commission, and then by the staff of the Planning Department, without any additional community input at all. A project of this type would be nearly double the size of City Hall. Imagine multiple City Hall-sized projects in the downtown area approved only by the Planning Commission and City staff without any additional review!

In the past, large projects were subjected to a process that included an agreement with the developer to add so-called “community benefits” in exchange for additional height and size. These Development Agreements have been harshly criticized for allowing excessively large buildings with relatively meager community benefits. California law allows these Development Agreements to be challenged by citizens through the ballot box, via the referendum process. That’s what happened with the Hines project. However, under the draft Downtown Community Plan, projects up to 100,000 square feet would not be subject to a Development Agreement, except for the seven “Opportunity Sites”. Residents would be blocked from challenging them via the referendum process.

The City and many residents have said that they would prefer to phase out Development Agreements in order to help clarify the rules for the benefit of both developers and residents, and to avoid “back-room” deals. However this large a project, double that of City Hall, should be not be approved before going through City Council, at the very least.

2. The Plan allows the height of many new buildings in the Downtown area to be more than triple that of most existing properties. And yet a continuing theme in the Downtown Community Plan is the intent to maintain the character and charm of the downtown district. For example, the introductory chapter cites the “quality and charm of its buildings”, and the second chapter suggests that we “maintain the ‘Our Town’ character of Downtown Santa Monica” and “preserve and enhance Downtown Santa Monica’s charm and character by requiring new development to contribute high standards of architecture, urban design and landscaping.” How can the City hope to maintain the character of the downtown area while allowing new buildings to be three times as tall as most existing ones?

3. The accuracy of certain parts of the Draft Community Plan is questionable. For example, the plan states that the majority of the existing buildings in our downtown are 3 and 4 stories, when the actual number is less than 30% (as confirmed by a windshield survey conducted by our colleague Ron Goldman). The Plan also says that the City is not a major landowner in the Downtown area, and yet it owns several very large properties, including the Big Blue Bus yards, the 4th/5th & Arizona site across from the old Post Office (and now the subject of a controversial and huge new project), and the site for the proposed new ArcLight movie theaters (which will replace a soon-to-be demolished parking structure, near the Promenade). These spots could be suitable for cultural facilities, including museums and theaters, which are listed as important community benefits. Instead the city is processing plans for hotels, movie theaters and other uses on these city-owned properties. Is this the best use for city-owned properties in the Downtown area?

Will the large number of new residents expected to live in the Downtown area have children? If so, as the Plan states, they will likely be attending school at Roosevelt Elementary and Lincoln Middle School – not exactly within walking distance. We wonder how those children will get to school every day.

4. The Plan rightly suggests that alleys are important for added pedestrian access, but it proposes no building setbacks for those canyon-like areas. Consider that recently completed developments hover 60-70 feet above those relatively narrow passageways. It is hard to see the charm and character of those near-tunnels as they provide entryways to the pedestrian-oriented Promenade and areas alongside it.

Other open-space suggestions in the Plan cover the importance of sidewalk setbacks, parklets and mid-block “paseos”. However many of these are suggested simply as community benefits to be negotiated with developers. There is no specific plan to implement these improvements through zoning. The City controls and determines the zoning rules in this area (one purpose, after all, of the Downtown Community Plan), so why not ensure the viability of these types of spaces by requiring them outright?

5. The infrastructure component of the plan needs to have internal contradictions and inaccurate information revised. As we’ve written here before (on January 23, 2016 and December 5, 2015), the Plan counts on habit-changing water-use policies to “expand the capacity of the water system.” Habit-changing water conservation policies should be taken only to conserve water, and not to provide increased capacity for development, especially when the new habits that result from those policies may change along with the weather. The Plan anticipates an increase in demand for sewer capacity, and that always comes with increased demand for water (on the principle of “what goes in must go out”). As we stated earlier, at some point we must acknowledge that more users will require more water, no matter what habit-changing conservation measures the city takes. That water will have to come from somewhere.

Finally, the proposed Downtown Community Plan allows for the existing building area in the Downtown district to more than double, but it never discusses or identifies how much development is needed, nor identifies the reasons it is necessary. Many residents have been asking for an explanation. Why is so much extra development needed in our city’s downtown? The Downtown Community Plan is the place for this explanation, and it is sorely needed.

Ron Goldman and Dan Jansenson for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow.

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