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Planning Commission Rejects Artists Studios

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

April 22 -- Following the lead of City staff, the Planning Commission Wednesday night shot down a plan to build a three-story artist studio project in Santa Monica’s light manufacturing district (LMSD), but not until it heard from two architects and a lawyer in favor of the plan.

The sticky point for the commissioners was a proposed amendment to the City’s zoning ordinances that would allow buildings as large as four stories and 45 feet high in an area where height limits are now set at 30 feet and two stories.

The commissioners gave a variety of reasons for their action, but the one most commonly voiced was that it would be unwise to consider such a change while the City is updating its General Plan -- a document that will guide future development for decades to come.

“It’s not at this time that we need to approve such an amendment because we have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of precedent are we setting if we do it now?’” said Commissioner Jay Johnson.

Commissioner Arlene Hopkins agreed.

“We’re in the middle of a General Plan update,” Hopkins said. “Many developers are watching this, waiting, hoping we’ll approve this.”

Hopkins added that the light manufacturing district as we know it “will be gone” if a hasty decision were made.

But architect David Hibbert -- who designed the project at 1630 Stewart Street -- pointed out that other buildings in the area are as tall or taller than his proposal, and that movie studios and schools in the LMSD are already allowed to go up to 45 feet.

He asked that the zoning text be changed to include his project in that exemption.

The 22-unit building with 15-foot-high ceilings would provide the kind of space much sought after by artists to live and work in, said Hibbert, who has designed a number of major commercial projects in Santa Monica including the MTV building.

Speaking for a developer of a similar project in the same area, Attorney Chris Harding argued that excluding artist lofts from an exemption already granted to the entertainment industry “just doesn’t make sense.”

Harding testified that the two proposed projects in the LMSD would be “much smaller in scale than what surrounds them,” adding that the idea that the three story lofts would “loom over” neighboring buildings “is ludicrous.”

“If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the area.” said Harding.

Another architect, John Arnold -- who is not involved in the project -- argued from a design standpoint, saying that increased heights in the area would create better working buildings that won’t max out the square footage of the lots.

But Michelle Page, who lives in the neighborhood, took a different view.

“These people bought this property knowing the zoning restrictions and I think they should be kept to it,” Page told the commission.

Page worried that redevelopment would force small businesses out of the area and called the proposed amendment “a thinly disguised plan to get housing into the light manufacturing district.”

Commissioner Darrel Clarke said there was no reason that the developers couldn’t get what they wanted in a building out of the existing code.

“This could have been presented as a two-story, thirty-foot project. It wasn’t,” said Clarke. “They had a reason to want to present a larger project.

“There is obviously an incentive that would be created if a forty-five foot height limit were allowed,” he added.

Clarke worried that amending the code would lead to “canyoniztation” by spurring construction of closely packed, four-story buildings.

But commissioner Julia Lopez Dad disagreed, saying she had been convinced for some time that raising the height limits could produce better designed buildings that would have a longer life.

Commissioner Terry O’Day said that the idea “has merit,” but added that such an ordinance would also have to address parking.

Commissioner Gwynne Pugh said that he didn’t “have a problem” with a 45-foot tall building for artists, but added that the problem “probably can’t be solved this evening.”

Pugh said that for increasing heights for artist lofts the City should get a “quid pro quo” that would insure that the spaces actually go to artists and are kept affordable.

The commission voted five to one to deny the proposed amendment. Commissioner Dad cast the one dissenting vote

The commission also denied two variances related to the development agreement, but certified an Environmental Impact Report which will streamline the permit process should the developers reapply.

Commission Chair Barbara Brown thanked everyone for a “really good” discussion which she said convinced her that “this is not the time to be dealing with this issue.”

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the commission acknowledged receiving the Emerging Themes report from staff which includes community input regarding the General Plan update.

The commission will discuss the report with the City Council at a joint session Tuesday.

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