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Santa Monica Readies Itself for Tuesday's Height Debate

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 9, 2013 -- Representatives of both sides of Santa Monica's heated height debate have fired off letters to the City Council hoping to influence Tuesday's discussion of the Downtown Specific Plan.

Both proponents and opponents of tall buildings in Downtown Santa Monica sent their letters to the City Council in the hopes that it would listen to their last-minute arguments ahead of a Tuesday meeting where the Council will decide how tall Santa Monica's downtown skyline could potentially be. ("Santa Monica City Council to Study Building Heights Downtown," July 3)

Though the Council plans to vote Tuesday to study maximum height -- 135 feet or roughly 12 stories -- and density for a State-mandated environmental analysis of Santa Monica's nascent Downtown Specific Plan, slow-growth advocates say the analysis comes too soon while proponents of tall buildings say the proposed limits would stifle informed conversation about building up downtown.

The slow-growth group Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City's (SMCLC) open letter to the Council said that if staff moved ahead with the program environmental impact report (PEIR) for the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), it “would be poor planning and severely limit public input.”

The letter, which called for a complete draft of the Downtown Specific Plan to be written before staff proceed with the PEIR, said Tuesday's meeting was “an attempt to rush through the process.”

SMCLC's letter was accompanied by one from a local neighborhood group, North of Montana Association (NOMA), which echoed many of the same points.

Proponents of higher limits may not take issue with the timing of PEIR, but some have argued that the proposed parameters are too narrow.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce drafted a letter to the Council Tuesday voicing its concerns.

“If approved, Staff’s approach to the DSP EIR will severely limit the City Council’s options in making decisions about DSP heights and densities,” the letter reads.

Carl Hansen, the Chamber's director of Government Affairs, said, “The purpose of the EIR is to provide information, and it should cover a broad range of heights, including the heights of the proposed Opportunity Site projects.”

Representatives of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel -- who are currently studying a plan that would put a 21-story tower on the hotel's four-acre property -- said they found staff's recommendations “astonishing” because it ignores the “explicit recommendations” of the City Council when it weighed-in on the Miramar project in April 2012.

An earlier iteration of the Miramar project included a 12 story -- 135 foot -- L-shaped building, but the Council, in response to residents' concerns that it would create a canyon effect on Second Street, asked for a taller, skinnier building.

If 135 feet is set as the maximum height studied in the EIR, it would be significantly shorter than any of three hotel projects proposed along Ocean Avenue, the shortest of which is 195 feet.

Alan Epstein, lead negotiator for MSD Capital, which oversees the Miramar project, said, “Each opportunity site project should be studied on its own merits, with height, density and other issues to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

“Restricting the dialog now, without all the facts, and limiting height to less than that explicitly directed by the Council, does not serve the City’s best interests,” he said.

While Tuesday's decision wouldn't set official limits, according to State law, developers hoping to build taller than the heights studied in the Specific Plan's EIR would have to pay for another study for any additional height.

Even after investing in an EIR, a process that can cost upwards of half a million dollars, there would still be no guarantee that developers would be allowed to build a taller building. They would also have to apply for an amendment to the Specific Plan, the allowance of which would ultimately be left to the discretion of the City Council.

It's clear from SMCLC's letter that the organization does not see eye-to-eye with Miramar representatives on height.

“The ongoing success of our Downtown has been the retention of its unique, low-scale profile as manifested in the Third Street Promenade and by the preservation of Santa Monica Place,” the letter reads.

In 2004, SMCLC was instrumental in scuttling a project that would have replaced Santa Monica Place with three 21-story towers with condos above a platform of stores.

In response to SMCLC's protests, the developer Macerich simply decided to rebuild the mall within the same envelop as the previous mall.

“Nowhere in the extremely brief description of 'opportunity sites' in LUCE does it say that these sites would be eligible for heights and densities over and above those to be determined for Tier 3,” the letter reads. “If it had, there would have been an enormous public outcry at the time.”

Long-time political observer and resident of the Ocean Park neighborhood Frank Gruber called staff's recommendation “conservative” because it recommends the EIR “cover only small changes to existing standards for both building heights and the amount of permitted development.”

Within the staff report, however, there is an option to study the three hotel projects in the EIR as they are proposed.

“Because the purpose of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is to give decision-makers more information, not less, to inform their decision-making, the council should accept this invitation and expand the scope of the EIR,” he said.

Hansen agreed. “How can our community make an informed decision on height without first studying it’s potential impacts?” he asked in an email to press Monday.

Still the process is far from over since the EIR can take up to a year to be completed.

Also, with two Council members out of town Tuesday and a lengthy, heated public testimony expected, it's possible that the Council will not make a decision and postpone a vote until all the Council members are on the dais.

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