The Santa Monica Development Agreement Conversation: What Say You?

Saturday, 9 Feb 2013, 9:00:00 AM

Susan Cloke

Susan Cloke, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Susan Cloke, Columnist

Development Agreement (DA) is the buzzword of the day

when talking about new building projects in Santa Monica. Although the City

entered into its first DA in the 1980’s only a handful have been processed

since. Now the City has a whopping 31 DAs in the pipeline. And that’s what the

conversation is all about.

A DA is a tool in the planning toolbox.

It allows a City and a developer to enter into a

negotiated contract for an exchange of rights and benefits not covered by

other, standard planning tools such as conditional use permits and variances.

It is a tool that allows greater flexibility. Note however that, by law, all

DAs must be consistent with the LUCE.

The LUCE, adopted in 2010, is a blueprint for the build

out of the City for the next 20 years. The Zoning Ordinance must conform to the

LUCE as it lays out development rights. The new Zoning Ordinance is in progress

and a draft will go to the Planning Commission this coming spring and to the

Council for final approval at the end of 2013. 

The Planning Department currently lists 48 pending

applications, a mix of DA requests and Administrative Approvals. Four are

hotels: the Fairmont Miramar, the Courtyard Marriott, the Hampton Inn, and 710

Wilshire. Two are for auto dealerships. One is for a Science Classroom

Building. One is Bio Tech Research and Development. The rest are for

residential development. Some are residential only and some ask for ‘mixed

use,’ which is a combination of residential and office and/or commercial.

The two largest projects are ones that, due to their size

and their complexity, would be DA applications even after the new Zoning

Ordinance is adopted. 

The Fairmont Miramar proposes to redevelop the hotel with

new food and beverage facilities, spa, banquet facilities, retail space along

Wilshire Boulevard and condominiums on the upper floors of new buildings and

the retention and rehabilitation of the existing Palisades Building and the

preservation of the Landmark Moreton Bay Fig Tree.

At issue are the design changes to a locally and

internationally known hotel, the increased size and scale of the proposed

project for a new total of 565,000 sq. ft., the addition of new condominiums,

and the addition of affordable housing on the 2nd Street property owned by the

hotel. 

Central to the discussion are the community benefits

being offered by the hotel and/or requested by the City as part of the

negotiation of the DA contract. The Fairmont Miramar has had two ‘float up’

hearings in front of the Planning Commission and one ‘float up’ hearing in

front of the City Council. 

The largest requested DA is located on the old Papermate

site in the Bergamot District. It is proposed to be a mixed use Creative

Arts/Residential and Neighborhood Commercial for a total of 766,000 sq.ft. That

includes 498 new residential units in 361,000 sq. ft.; creative arts spaces in

375,000 sq.ft.; and neighborhood commercial in 30,000 sq.ft.

The 766,000 sq.ft. currently being requested is a

significant reduction from the original application. The proposal has met with

community opposition to both the proposed scale and to the design.

Both projects have been in the pipeline for several years

with community meetings and planning meetings. Further meetings for both

projects are on a to be determined basis and there will be much discussion on

each of these projects in the community and at public hearings.

But what about projects that aren’t grabbing the public’s

attention? The greatest number of projects on the Planning Department list is

residential. 

City Planning Director David Martin said, “This increase

is the result of several factors including: LUCE policies that encourage the

construction of mixed-use residential projects along transit boulevards and

near light rail stations, a CEQA exemption for mixed-use housing projects with

100 units or less located within one half mile of a major transit stop, an

increase in the number of rental housing units being proposed and constructed

in the Los Angeles region, historically low interest rates, the strong demand

for housing in Santa Monica, the stability of Santa Monica as a place to

invest, and the overall desirability of the city as a place to live.

Reading from the list of pending applications we see, for

example, 32 units in a total of 31,717 sq.ft.; 55 units in a total of 33,137

sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 54,280 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 54,942

sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 55,064 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 37,200

sq.ft.; 498 units in a total of 361,000 sq,ft. These are seven examples of the proposed 40 plus projects that include

residential development.

Do the math and you will see that what is being proposed

is mostly studios along with some small one bedroom units. Perfectly wonderful

as part of a larger mix, but of concern if all, or most, are in this low end of

the size range.

Housing of this size and type is traditionally temporary

in nature. It is designed for students or for starter housing. It could be used

as a weekend or vacation getaway for someone with a house elsewhere. It could

have many uses but it typically has one, sometimes two, occupants and a

relatively high turnover.

We could change the demographics of our population if all

of the proposed residential development were approved as proposed. We could

have a less permanent population and therefore perhaps one that is less

involved in the City. Yet much of our dynamism as a City comes from the sense

of ownership of the City that is felt by so many.  

Analyzing the size of residential units to understand

their impact on the future of the City is an essential part of the complex

decision making process that should go into every DA negotiation. 

The LUCE identified Santa Monica as needing more housing

and it identified affordable housing as a community benefit. Building smaller

units is one way to create affordable housing but there are other ways.

Affordable housing for families, for people who work in the City but can’t

afford to live here are also identified in the LUCE as a community benefit.

Each project needs to be looked at with an understanding

of how it will enhance or detract from the character of the City. Will it bring

the kind of benefits identified as we went through the LUCE process? What are

the traffic impacts of the project? What are its impacts on schools and parks

and City services? What benefits will the project bring to the City? 

The hard part for everyone, through all this dry reading,

is to be able to “see” the changes each project would make to the future life

of the City. But it is that understanding that the Council will ask for as they

review the list of projects in the pipeline again at its Feb. 12 meeting.

We want good applicants. Their projects are a part of

what makes Santa Monica a dynamic city. As we approve new development let’s

remember why the City is so desirable and let’s make decisions protective of

the character of the City even as it grows and changes.

What Say You?

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