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No Major Public Park in Final Draft of Downtown Santa Monica Plan
By Niki Cervantes
July 5, 2017 -- A proposal by slow-growth advocates for a major public park in the heart of downtown has been rejected by staff in the final draft of a City plan guiding the future development of Santa Monica's central business district.
Instead, the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) unveiled last week potentially paves the way for the construction a 12-story, mixed-use project anchored by a luxury hotel on nearly three acres of City-owned land at 4th and 5th streets and Arizona Avenue.
After six contentious years, the City’s last draft of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) heads to its final public hearing during a special meeting of the City Council at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
In a report to the council, staff said that based on City outreach, the community prefers “pocket parks,” courtyards and small plazas over “larger open spaces such as a central park or recreation fields.”
The DCP “emphasizes the role that private development must play to add new public spaces to Downtown" and "identifies key sites where development has been proposed and where negotiations with property owners may yield significant public open space,” staff wrote.
“Similarly, the Public Space plan includes existing publicly-accessible spaces (“POPs”) that should be redesigned to promote better access and programming, perhaps incentivized with a small modicum of new floor area,” the report said.
“Additionally, the quality of Downtown’s streetscapes is to be improved to emphasize their role as public spaces."
The proposal is a far cry from the vision of a major public park backed by leaders of the Santa Monica's slow-growth movement and the City’s Recreation and Parks Commission ("Recreation and Parks Commission Calls for Downtown Park on Proposed 'Plaza at Santa Monica' Site," June 20, 2017).
“Residents overwhelmingly want a park at 4th and Arizona,” said Diana Gordon of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. Instead, “the Plan proposes using this public property for a luxury hotel and yet more office space.
"The City should not partner with developers to maximize their profit on our land,” Gordon said. “Under intense developer pressure and to meet the rapidly escalating city budget, the Plan has gotten worse and worse and residents’ years of input has been rejected.”
Santa Monica’s slow-growth contingent has been warning the DCP will clear a path to over-development and more gridlock, noting it allows 3.22 million square feet of new net building in an area already built out ("Santa Monica Watchdog Group Warns New Plan Primes Downtown for 'Runaway' Building and Traffic," April 19, 2017).
Development-friendly organizations say the DCP isn’t generous enough, and it should work harder to ease the housing crunch, especially for units below the city’s sky-high market rents –- which is where the shortage is most critical ("Group Seeks More Development for Downtown Santa Monica," May 12, 2017).
City officials bill the DCP as primarily a housing plan. It re-makes some major commuter boulevards downtown as neighborhoods for apartment dwellers, anticipating the downtown population will grow from its current 4,700 residents to 7,800 residents -- or a 73 percent increase -- by 2030.
To accommodate the influx of new residents, the DCP envisions the construction of as many as 5,975 units, or a 115 percent jump. Downtown now has 2,775 multi-family dwellings.
The plan enlarges downtown to embrace such busy thoroughfares as Lincoln Boulevard, which would be transformed by replacing mostly one or two-story businesses into five-to-seven story mixed-use apartment buildings anchored on the ground floor by commercial uses.
The City also is requiring developers to set aside some of the units for “affordable housing,” which can range from units for those who are extremely low income to moderate earners.
Still, almost 40 percent of the total square footage proposed so far in the DCP belongs to three projects which are primarily luxury hotels, with affordable housing (12 percent or less of each) and some “community” and “cultural” uses added.
Together, the projects are big enough to rival the City’s largest developments, although a height cap of 130 feet has been proposed.
If approved by the council, the cap could impact Frank Gehry’s proposed mixed-use hotel at 101 Santa Monica Boulevard, the proposed redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and the proposed "Plaza at Santa Monica” at 4th/5th and Arizona.
The downsized "Plaza" project -- which includes a 280-room luxury hotel -- sets aside 48 units of affordable housing, which is a major selling point for some council members ("Plaza at Santa Monica' Project Scaled Back," February 8, 2017).
It also provides public space at ground level, at 5th and Arizona, pocket parks and a second-level park with terrace space.
These range from using the Metro Expo Light Rail Line and municipal buses, to car-sharing, services such as Uber and Lyft and bicycling or walking.
In addition, the DCP limits parking as an incentive to use alternate transit. For instance, the latest draft recommends a “universal parking rate” of one space per 500 square feet for all retail and restaurant uses under 5,000 square feet.
Parking spots for residences are cut as well.
Overall, the plan -- which covers the area bounded by Wilshire Boulevard and the I-10 Freeway, and between Lincoln Boulevard and Ocean Avenue -- focuses development on areas close to the Expo line.
Older buildings of one or two stories, which are still prevalent downtown, would be replaced under the DCP by buildings of five to seven stories.
The area would be “framed” by four-story “transition zones” that gradually reduce height and scale at the outer edges where downtown abuts the residential neighborhoods of Wilmont and Mid-City, and where views of the Pacific Ocean open up on Ocean Avenue, the report said.
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