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Architect of Design for a Less Congested but More Crowded Downtown Santa Monica Weighs In


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

July 7, 2017 -- It has been called everything from a bold model to disastrous.
And no wonder.

The City of Santa Monica’s Downtown Community Plan (DCP) banks on the ability of people to embrace lifestyles far less reliant on cars, and designs a future that accommodates some 3 million additional square feet of development and a much larger residential population -- all without worsening traffic.

Can it work, especially in the nation’s most car-clogged region?

The City official whose job is overseeing the creation of Santa Monica’s downtown plan says yes, although he is quick to note the DCP does not depend on motorists ditching their vehicles.

A car-less populace “is not going to happen anytime soon, or ever," said David Martin, director of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

“From our prospective, it’s all about offering (transit) options," he told the Lookout. "Not every trip has to be made in a car.”

A public hearing on the final draft of the DCP is set for Monday in a special 5:30 p.m. session of the City Council, in council chambers. Written submissions will also be accepted.

The council itself deliberates on the plan in its regular session the following day. A final vote is scheduled for July 25.

Six years in the making, the DCP has caused a fissure in the community, with its slow-growth faction in bitter opposition and business-oriented organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the local hotel union lobbying for a more pro-development plan.

The DCP’s focus on adding as many as 5,975 new multi-family housing units by 2030 has spurred particular interest because of Southern California’s housing shortage.

The DCP's success will depend on whether it can contain traffic despite increasing downtown's residential population from 4,700 residents to 7,800 residents in the next 13 years and adding 3.2 million sqaure feet of new development.

Despite the increases, the plan predicts that car trips during peak evening hours will not exceed 60,100 by December of 2020.

In 2013, the City counted 59,500 such trips during the same hours.

The plan relies on the City’s new model of mobility, which redesigns streets downtown and in other parts of the city to make them more enticing -- and safer -- for those willing to forgo cars and take the Metro Light Rail (which opened in May of 2016) or walk and bike to their destinations.

Sidewalks are being widened, crosswalks improved and multiplied and medians added in some areas (like Lincoln) to calm traffic. The City’s Bike Plan, adopted in 2011, also is being updated.

The DCP also proposes cutting by half the available private parking spaces in new housing developments ("Safety of Santa Monica Streets Could Emerge as New Worry in Plan for Development Downtown," May 31, 2017).

New studio and one-bedroom apartments, which are now allotted one parking spot, would be built with a ratio of only half of a parking space. Apartments with two or more bedrooms get one space. There will also be only one guest space per 15 units.

City Manager Rick Cole reecently denied allgations by critics who contend the Downtown Plan fails to adequately address vehicle circualtion and stressed the importance of alternative modes of transportation in the plan.

Cole remained firm on the move to multi-modality, a theme picking up stream in different parts of the country, including the City of Los Angeles, as concern about pollution, gridlock and climate change become more dominant ("Santa Monica Neighborhood Group Says New Plan for Cars Needed," June 28, 2017).

In the final weeks before adoption, the draft DCP still aroused suspicion from its critics, who think the plan is mostly aimed at tourism (a huge financial bounty for the City’s stressed coffers) and ignores resident complaints about over-development, traffic and the potential loss of Santa Monica’s beach town vibe.

Leaders of the slow-growth movement are lobbying for an urban park at 4th and 5th streets and Arizona, instead of a proposal for a 12-story, 357,000-square-foot hotel/mixed use project called “The Plaza at Sana Monica” ("Slow-Growth Activists Girding for Fight Against "Plaza at Santa Monica," February 28, 2017).

Although a recent report from City planners said a big public park is less favored by the community than smaller green spaces, like parklets, Martin said the public park is still being studied as part of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the site.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce and Santa Monica Forward, a local group advocating for transit-oriented growth, say the plan does not go far enough in addressing the need for more housing ("Group Seeks More Development for Downtown Santa Monica," May 12, 2017).

Santa Monica Forward, whose board includes local political and civic leaders, called the proposed plan "aggressively slow-growth" and said it relies on "outmoded planning principles."

Under the final plan, buildings as tall as 84 feet would be allowed near the rail station on Colorado Avenue, as well as on three sites -- the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, a nearby site slated for a Frank Gehry-designed hotel and on the City owned land at 4th and 5th streets and Arizona -- without requiring a development agreement (DA).

With a DA, the structures at those three sites could rise as high as 130 feet, but would have to abide by the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) allowed for the 84-foot-tall projects.

Unless the council decides otherwise, the building cap of 130 feet in height established for the three major sites is final, Martin said.

“They are bound to what is in the DCP,” he said. “We didn’t want to look at these projects on a case by case basis.

"Once we’ve established the height, we don’t want to go beyond it. We establish the rules. It is up to the applicant to comply.”

As a result, the developers of the three major sites are re-assessing their blueprints and awaiting the council's final approval of the plan before submitting the final versions of their projects, Martin said.

After the council adopts the DCP, the three projects will require more analysis, environmental review and separate votes, he said.

The latest draft of the DCP also leaves out earlier proposals for either a public vote or a council supermajority vote for approval for the three projects.

Proponents of the projects note that hotels generate less traffic than either residential or retail development and generate much needed revenues in the form of bed taxes, which unlike other taxes are not shared with other government entities ("Santa Monica Bed Taxes Pumped Nearly $51 Million into City Coffers Last Year, Report Says," May 12, 2017).


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