Santa Monica's Downtown Specific Plan Detours Through Planning Commission

Monday, 22 Jul 2013, 9:14:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

Not quite a left turn at Albuquerque, the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) found itself on the Planning Commission agenda eight days after the Santa Monica City Council tabled its discussion on the matter until Aug. 13.

Less than 24 hours after it was tabled, Planning Commissioners scheduled the DSP to be placed on the July 17 agenda to discuss the plan’s California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, parameters.

At heart of the discussion: what should the height and density parameters of future developments within Santa Monica look like?

Once the height and density parameters of future developments are defined in the DSP, city officials would be able to move forward with the CEQA analysis.

In the longer run, defining height and density restrictions will dictate how future developments can look like in Santa Monica’s downtown core.

Indeed, a discussion of how tall or dense a building could be has been the subject of intense debate in the weeks and months leading up to the July 10 City Council and July 17 Planning Commission meetings.

Based upon community input, there has been a divide between residents who hope the DSP will limit building height to 84 feet high and those who would welcome high-rise skyscrapers in the downtown.

A few potential projects would bring twenty-something story buildings to Santa Monica’s downtown, including a possible 22-story hotel designed by world-renowned architect and local resident Frank Geary. If built, the hotel would be built at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

The proposed Fairmont Miramar renovation and expansion project includes plans for buildings exceeding 84 feet in height.

Indeed, under the DSP, a majority of development would be limited to 84 feet in height.

However, certain projects could reach as high as 135 feet. Such projects would be located at one of eight “opportunity sites.”

When the Planning Commission hosted a town hall-style meeting at the Civic Auditorium in May, City staff revealed the plan aimed to maximize growth and user experience in Santa Monica’s downtown core without, ideally, bringing in new traffic.

It was also mentioned by City staff that the key goals of the plan would focus on investment, reduce new vehicle trips (as per the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE), support economic health, maximize livability and sustainability, and connect downtown to the Civic Center and the beaches.

City staff said it hopes the plan will preserve character of historic buildings and the character of surrounding streets and spaces while also enhancing walking, driving, biking, and transit circulation.

The town hall forum in May was the tenth step in a public process that started in January 2012, when the project team, schedule, and approach were all introduced to the Planning Commission.

A community meeting was also held in January 2012 before the City Council discussed DSP themes the following months. In March 2012, DSP came back to the Planning Commission again to hash out development standards.

The Planning Commission hosted community meetings to discuss community benefits for all projects falling under the purview of the DSP (July 2012) and how to preserve downtown Santa Monica’s character while also focusing on urban design and form (December 2012).

Height and density parameters were first broached as a central topic during a Planning Commission meeting in January. Six weeks later, commissioners discussed circulation concepts. On March 11, the Landmarks Commission chimed in on how to preserve historic buildings within the downtown that were not landmarked.

The Planning Commission town hall meeting took place seven weeks later; last week’s City Council meeting was the first time the DSP was back in the public forum since the May 6 town hall meeting.

The public process continued this week at the Planning Commission. The Mirror will provide in-depth coverage of this week’s meeting in the July 26 issue.

Council members will weigh in on the DSP on Aug. 13. The discussion was tabled July 9 because only four council members were present. Ideally, more council members would be present at the Aug. 13 meeting, hence allowing for a meaningful discussion and deliberation on height and density parameters.

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