Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.’s Board of Directors is “deeply concerned” about the reduced heights and densities outlined in the draft Downtown Community Plan, which the City Council is expected to debate and approve in late July.
Specifically, the DTSM Board, in a letter to the Council and City planners, is worried that reducing height limits to 60 feet in some sections of Downtown would discourage the creation of much-needed housing. Many of the region’s residents struggle with excessive rents and a lack of new apartments to meet the ever-growing demand, particularly in coastal cities where job growth has been more robust.
The board would like to see Tier 3 development standards consistent with currently applicable zoning applied to Second, Third and Fourth streets in the Downtown core. The current draft plan permits Tier 3 developments with heights up to 84 feet and floor area ratios (FARs) of 4.0 only on transit-oriented parcels located adjacent to the 10 Freeway and the Expo Light Rail Line.
On Lincoln Boulevard, the board seeks consistent height and density standards for both sides of the corridor. Proposed standards impose a height reduction of 10 feet for projects located on the east side of the street near the Mid-City neighborhood.
“Though we agree with many of the plan’s policies and resulting action items, we remain deeply concerned about one aspect of the plan’s overarching vision — namely, the distribution of heights and densities across the Downtown neighborhood,” read the letter to the Council.
“Many of this community’s foundational planning documents have envisioned Downtown as the primary location for new housing development due to its transit access, employment opportunities, walkability and rich network of neighborhood amenities,” the letter stated. “The DCP goes to great lengths to enhance and build upon these identified characteristics of our neighborhood, yet fails to provide adequate development standards to maximize the number of residents who can access these vital services.”
The draft plan comes following a lengthy public process that began over two years ago and included more than a dozen workshops and public hearings, as well as stakeholder interviews and discussions with various boards, including DTSM, Inc.
It envisions a Downtown that looks very much the same in 2030 as it does today, aside from a handful of architecturally bold additions and in-fill development of midrise mixed-use housing projects. The energy and vitality of the Third Street Promenade has spread to adjacent streets that are now pulsing with pedestrians who enjoy the wider sidewalks, new public art and engaging public spaces.
The area is clean and safe. Young people fill restaurants and nightclubs while Baby Boomers enjoy their active retirement and savor outdoor life in Downtown’s cafes, parks, public plazas and farmers markets.
More people are living without a car, either walking, biking, taking public transit or hitching rides in autonomous vehicles. More families would call Downtown home as new housing construction would have to include more two- and three-bedroom units, some of which would need to be made affordable to not just low-income families, but middle-income families as well.
The plan breaks Downtown into several subareas, some with greater heights while others are intended to be lower in scale and pay respect to Downtown’s history and to those who live just outside its borders in more low-rise neighborhoods. City planners took into account that up until the last few years developers have been allowed to build up to 84 feet throughout Downtown, but few have chosen to do so. That’s one of the reasons why the 84 foot height limit was reduced in most areas. People weren’t taking advantage of it.
It is estimated that if the draft plan is approved without significant changes by the Council there could be more than 2,500 units of housing built during the plan’s lifespan. Those estimates are based on an environmental impact study and traffic analysis, which found that roughly 3.3 million square feet of development could be added without putting more vehciles on the road during peak evening commute hours. How that square footage is divided up will greatly impact the amount of housing constructed over the next 20 years or more.
The build-out analysis assumes 2,500 housing units will be added, 974 hotel rooms, 199,000 square feet of retail and about 200,000 square feet of office space. If commercial is favored over housing construction, fewer units could actually be built, or vice versa, said David Martin, the City’s director of planning and community development.
“We didn’t back into this plan in order to achieve a certain number of units,” Martin said. “We established what we believe are appropriate height limits and FARs to give us enough potential to meet our … numbers and possibly go beyond. There is flexibility here. … We could actually build more (housing).”
There are those who believe Santa Monica, and Downtown in particular, is already at capacity and can no longer sustain additional growth, especially more offices and commercial projects that tend to generate more traffic, especially during peak periods. If the goal is to build more affordable housing to help those who work in local hotels, restaurants and retail, allowing them to live close to their jobs and cut down on driving, then any new housing should be 100 percent affordable, slow-growth advocates said.
As it stands now those building market-rate housing must include a small percentage of affordable units. Some residents do not believe this is a good deal for the City, which must deal with increased traffic and congestion.
“With a billion-dollar biannual City budget and the new tax to support affordable housing, there are new streams of money to build affordable housing without settling for overdevelopment, which ultimately results in very few affordable units,” read a statement from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, which has fought for years to cap development in Santa Monica.
Others feel the lengthy development process Santa Monica is known for, coupled with requirements to provide community benefits like affordable housing, public transit subsidies, art and open space, will lead developers to abandon housing in favor of one or two-story commercial projects.
“Housing development is not for the faint of heart,” said Frank Gruber, an urbanist and former planning commissioner who writes the blog The Healthy City Local. “Two individuals … are responsible for most of the housing built in Downtown Santa Monica over the past 20 years. It’s telling that they both ultimately got into trouble with their lenders. It’s a risky business. … [M]ost developers and, especially, their lenders avoid risks. Given Silicon Beach there’s no risk now and plenty of gain in building one- and two-story retail and/or office buildings, which … only need administrative approvals. It’s these projects that the DCP makes easy—precisely the projects that the rhetoric in the DCP says we don’t want.”
DTSM, Inc. recognizes that danger and is calling for greater heights and densities for housing projects in some, not all, areas of Downtown so that developers will have more of an incentive to build housing. DTSM, Inc. also opposes the creation of any special development approval process, including voter approval or supermajority votes of the Council, which could serve as a disincentive to build housing.
“The existing processes are time-tested and provide ample opportunity for community engagement,” DTSM, Inc. states in its letter to Council.
Martin said there may be a small number of developers who will shy away from housing projects that require extra approvals and community benefits, but that will not be the trend. The DCP improves the approval process, making it more transparent.
“We are still seeing projects come forward that are mixed-use with housing,” Martin said, pointing to a series of housing developments on Lincoln Boulevard that will replace one-story buildings that include on-site surface parking. “The best thing we can offer is predictability and a more straight-forward entitlement process so that we level the playing field and make a housing project as easy as a commercial project.”
Another area in which the plan offers flexibility is parking. Martin said the plan recognizes the current shakeup in the retail industry and the need to adapt in the future to changing consumer habits. As more people shop online there may be less of a need for larger retail spaces, which could then be converted to live music venues or pop-up restaurants that only last six months or so. Currently any change of use requires a change in the number of parking spaces provided for that use, which can often deter a small business owner from setting up shop.
“I always think back to some of the uses we were so worried about regulating 20 or 30 years ago, like video arcades, which were only allowed on the Pier, or Blockbuster Video, which everybody used but no one wanted to live around,” Martin said. “Now those don’t exist. We don’t know what the next big thing will be, but we want to be as flexible as we can so when the new thing does come along, we can embrace it and not have them go through a long, drawn-out process.”
One of DTSM, Inc.’s recommendations to Council is a streamlined process for granting variances for all aspects of retail space design and configuration standards, and for live entertainment uses.
Some of the other recommendations made by the DTSM, Inc. board include the building of a new movie theater and entertainment complex at either Parking Structure 1 or 3, devising a Vehicle Action Plan similar to the City’s Bike and Pedestrian Action Plans, and more flexibility when it comes to sidewalk widths so that outdoor dining is encouraged.
The board would also like to see a dedicated revenue stream for the maintenance and activation of public open space. The board has also endorsed a height limit of 130 feet for the three established large development sites in Downtown, which include the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, and the City-owned lots at Fourth/Fifth streets and Arizona Avenue,
Martin acknowledges that pleasing everyone in the community is nearly impossible and also not the goal of the DCP draft plan. The idea is to strike a balance and set up Downtown for continued success.
“I feel good about it,” he said. “We have a great Downtown now. This is about how do we grow and move forward but maintain the character that already exists that is so great. I think this plan does that.”
Now it’s up to the City Council to decide. Elected officials have held two public meetings thus far and a third is scheduled for later this month.
For a schedule of Council meetings and to see how you can still weigh in on the plan, visit www.downtownsmplan.org/