By Jorge Casuso
April 11 -- Santa Monicans are known for their civic involvement -- from the height of a wall to the removal of a tree, someone is sure to weigh in at a workshop, public hearing or community meeting.
But it isn't often members of the public get a chance to take part in major decisions that will literally shape their daily lives, decisions that could influence whether they will walk or drive to work, live in a city of highrises or low-flung buildings.
That chance is here. For the first time in 20 years, the City is revisiting the documents that dictate everything from the height of buildings to the routes bicycles will take. These aren't the only decisions sure to shape the face of Santa Monica.
As the City crafts its documents dictating zoning and circulation, Macerich Co. is embarking on an ambitious proposal to redevelop its 24-year-old mall in the heart of Downtown. In addition, the City is in the process of making two major Downtown streets more inviting to walk.
Shaping the Future
But what might have looked like an arts-and-crafts class or a group therapy session was in fact part of a serious two-year process to update the Land Use Element of the City's General Plan.
The "Shape the Future 2005 Community Workshop" was part of the Planning Department's ongoing effort to gather public input for a document that will dictate development in the city for decades to come.
For several months residents have been given a chance to weigh in at other community meetings, as well as through phone and Internet surveys, while children at Santa Monica schools have spent the past two months forming their own visions for the future.
While the City is currently "wrapping up the phase of broad ideas and overall vision," there will still be plenty of time for public input, said Andy Agle, the City's interim planning director. The ultimate goal, Agle said, is to turn the community's general vision into a set of zoning laws.
"To get to that level of detail, we have to get a sense of what do we want Santa Monica to be," Agle said. "How do we develop policies to achieve these goals?"
After looking at display boards and posting their thoughts, the attendees at the January 22 meeting broke into small groups and then presented their findings to the whole assembly, where many shared similar concerns about "highrises," "big box stores" and too much traffic in the seaside community.
The groups not only provided a general vision, they also proposed specific solutions – including taxing cars that drive through Downtown and carving out more bicycle routes.
While ideas flooded in, City planning staff and its consultants cautioned that there was a long way to go before turning the public input gathered into laws. After the initial phase ends, a report will go to the Planning Commission and the City Council as early as this month "identifying emerging themes," Agle said.
"There will be different phases," Agle said. "At each phase, there will be opportunity for public participation."
The process of updating the General Plan began last October, and the Planning Commission and City staff will continue gathering information before they begin to discuss the general findings.
Work on a draft will begin in late November, with a finished document expected to come out October 2006. This will then be translated into zoning ordinances that will give the plan its teeth.
For more information on how to participate in the process, visit www.shapethefuture2025.net.
Making Things Happen
The Santa Monica resident was referring to a series of workshops in March that gave members of the public a chance to roll up their sleeves and construct their visions for Santa Monica Place with wooden blocks and paper.
The workshops are part of a 90-day process to gather community input that will help the City and Macerich Co. – which bought the shopping center five years ago – decide what should be done with the ten acres of prime Downtown real estate.
There also will be ten smaller meetings, including one with the Bayside District Corporation. In addition, more than 2,000 residents have weighed in using note cards sent to every Santa Monica household, while others have responded to a random survey.
A consultant will gather the information and "put together a report identifying consistent themes," said Planning Director Andy Agle. The community input will provide City and Macerich officials with "a grounding to look for options and alternatives," he said.
A financial consultant will analyze how much each option will cost both the City and Macerich in a report that will likely be completed in May. "We'll then go back to solicit public feedback on options and alternatives with market analysis," Agle said.
The results will then be presented to the Planning Commission and City Council "to get a sense if there is a feasible program in terms of moving forward." If the council gives the go-ahead, City officials and Macerich could be ready to sit at the bargaining table as early as half a year.
The extensive public process comes after the council rejected a plan by Macerich that included three 21-story condo towers totaling 300 units, an office and an apartment complex and a park perched above two floors of retail.
Macerich officials note that workshop participants retained several cornerstones of the original plan.
"I think that thus far, since I was at every meeting, the majority say they would like to the see the projects torn down, and a majority say they want underground parking," said Macerich Vice President Randy Brant. "The majority also wants to see a better connection to the Civic Center and the pier."
Macerich officials, however, cautioned that public input, though important, was only one factor driving the redevelopment.
"Although each comment we receive brings us closer to a final design, it is important to also recognize the realities that come with this opportunity," Macerich officials said in a statement released after the first workshop.
This includes "specifically, our contractual obligations to the retailers currently residing in the mall and our responsibility to follow the core principles the City Council has tasked us with," the statement said.
For more information about the workshops, visit www.santa-monica.org and www.santamonicaplace.com.
Motion by the Ocean
The testimony during a joint session of the City Council and the Planning Commission is part of a major effort to overhaul the City's nearly 20-year-old General Plan Circulation Element, a process City officials have dubbed "Motion by the Ocean."
"We need to know which transportation programs are important to you and just how you want to get around in Santa Monica," reads a posting on the City's Web site.
"The first phase is asking people how they think," said Lucy Dyke, the City's transportation planning manager. "The next phase is trying to find opportunities and challenges. We're going forward from a broad perspective to framing options."
The community will have ample opportunity to weigh in during the public input phase from spring 2004 to spring 2005, City officials said. Santa Monicans have already taken part in a "Neighborhood Traffic Workshop" and a "Bicycle Workshop."
In addition, a three-page survey posted on the City's Web site allows residents to indicate how they would spend transportation dollars. Transit, walking, neighborhood traffic calming, relieving bottlenecks, bicycling and parking were the choices provided. (As of the end of March, transit had received the most votes, traffic calming the least.)
"What is the biggest obstacle or problem you face in getting around Santa Monica?" is one of the questions asked. Another: "If you couldn't use your car for a week, how would you get around Santa Monica?"
"What we're trying to determine now is what are the important questions and issues," Dyke told Bayside officials at a board meeting March 24. "Once we know what the emerging issues are, we'll decide what data needs to be analyzed."
As part of the update to the Circulation Element, the City will be establishing performance goals and revising the methodology used to measure the impact development has on the City's circulation network, according to a staff report for the joint session.
"The 1984 Circulation Element reflects community concerns over the impact auto congestion has on the quality of life and includes policies and programs intended to promote biking, walking and transit in addition to providing infrastructure for auto travel," the report said.
The next joint session of the City Council and Planning Commission will be held in late April, when Planning staff will report on the emerging themes that have come out of this and previous meetings, including the public workshops earlier this year.
For more information click on the Motion by the Ocean banner on the City's homepage, www.santa-monica.org.
The meeting, which came less than one week after merchants got their say at their own workshop April 4, is part of a public process to gather input for $2.3 million worth of federally funded improvements.
The initial proposal, crafted in 1997, could undergo changes as a result of the public input, said Ellen Gelbard, deputy director of Planning and Community Development.
"This is just very initial," Gelbard said. "We want to see what people think. We're open and want to hear what people have to say.
"We'll get feedback and come back with a set of refined alternatives," Gelbard said. "Then we'll go to the council with a refined design."
The improvements are part of an effort to "expand the walking district" that includes the Downtown Transit Mall along Santa Monica Boulevard and along Broadway, Gelbard said. "Now we're expanding out in the other direction."
One of the key decisions will be whether to replace some of the area's ficus trees which – although generally conceded to be beautiful – require intensive pruning and lift up the sidewalks, creating maintenance and liability issues.
"Changing the trees, I think we're open to assessment," Gelbard said. "The trees have been trimmed, and they are doing pretty well."
Another key decision will be the lighting. "Whether we use the same lighting or different fixtures, that's something we want to get feedback about," Gelbard said. The workshops also could explore possible gateway treatments at Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue, she said.
In January, architect Lisa Padilla sought input from the Bayside District Board at its regular meeting. The board, which took no action, cautioned against spreading the money too thin and warned that the improvements would have to be carefully coordinated with other proposed projects, especially the planned demolition of three public parking structures in the area.
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