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Santa Monicans Argue Pros and Cons of Height

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP


By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

July 2, 2013 -- While the battle lines have been drawn over height, political observers and engaged residents are busy arguing the pros and cons of tall buildings in Downtown Santa Monica.

The City Council will cap years of debate and community meetings Tuesday when it sets preliminary standards -- including heights -- for the City's Downtown Specific Plan in preparation for a year-long State-mandated study of the impacts the new plan will have on traffic and the environment.

“We need to have a good, frank discussion on this,” said Council member Bob Holbrook. “Heights are not unlimited in Santa Monica. Just because someone proposes 21 stories doesn't mean that they're going to get it.”

Holbrook was referring to a spirited debate within the community over eight “opportunity” sites identified in the Specific Plan where the City could allow development that is taller and denser than anything that has been built in Santa Monica in more than 30 years.

Opponents have characterized the sites -- including three plots along Ocean Avenue where two hotel redesigns and a new hotel by Frank Gehry have been proposed -- as having unlimited height.

Staff has maintained that the Council will be asked to approve preliminary height limits for those sites because limits will be necessary for the environmental impact report process.

Still, the proposed heights will likely be greater than the six-story limit currently governing the City and has many people asking the question: Is height good for Santa Monica?

Michael Feinstein, a former Santa Monica mayor, teamed up with long-time political observer Frank Gruber to host a panel discussion Saturday to ask exactly that question.

Former City Manager Susan McCarthy was one of the 70 people who turned out. “One of the good things about Saturday's discussion was that people listened to each other,” said McCarthy, who served as City Manager from 1999 to 2005.

At its last meeting June 25, the Council approved spending $30,000 for a scientific survey to determine what residents think about height.

McCarthy, along with former mayor Judy Abdo, has supported the idea, arguing that since those who attend public meetings are a largely self-selecting group, a survey of all residents would be more representative of public opinion.

She said that a poll could give insight into how Santa Monica's younger residents feel about the issue.

“I'm quite interested in what the younger residents in Santa Monica, who may want to stay in this community think about it,” McCarthy said, adding that they have been absent from many of the community forums.

Abdo also attended Saturday's forum, which included a panel of architects and residents representing all sides of the height debate.

“I'm not willing to say on a particular project what the height should be,” said Abdo, who served on the council from 1988 to 1996. “My worst fear is that we have a Downtown with all buildings the same height and no open space.”

Feinstein, who served on the council from 1996 to 2004, was encouraged by the positive discussion at the meeting. “I think it's not yet clear how it's going to turn out,” he said about height limits.

While Feinstein said he hasn't yet made up his mind about how tall the buildings on opportunity sites should be allowed to rise, he worried that if they are too tall, they could set a precedent.

“If we add these three projects (proposed for Ocean Avenue) at the heights proposed, we're going to pass a threshold in scale so that when the next LUCE comes in 20 to 25 years, it's going to be OK to add another three or for more,” he said.

The three projects he was referring to include towers that range from about 200 feet to just under 300 feet.

All of the projects include luxury condos, a component that Feinstein has been a fierce opponent of, asserting that Santa Monica should not “sell its skyline to the one percent.”

McCarthy said that she doesn't think that building up is necessarily a bad thing.

“Our skyline has been punctuated periodically over many, many years by buildings that have stood out as something special,” she said.

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