Planning Commission Recommends Quickly Down-zoning Residential Areas
By Olin Ericksen
September 8 – Local officials are moving quickly to dramatically scale back allowable building sizes in most residential areas of Santa Monica amid fears that a proposed State proposition could hamstring any future zoning the City may undertake.
In an effort to nullify the impacts of the measure -- which would limit a local government’s right to take property and possibly interfere with a city’s ability to “down-zone” -- the Planning Commission Wednesday recommended that the City Council significantly redraw local zoning laws to keep smaller, lower buildings.
The commission’s action likely marks the first local response in the state to the well-financed Anderson Initiative, which requires payment of just compensation for “government actions that result in substantial economic loss to private property," including down-zoning. (see story)
The commission rushed into action at a time when the City is in the midst of an extensive two-year outreach process intended to thoughtfully shape how Santa Monica will grow for years to come – a hot-button issue in the beachside city. (see story)
“I feel as though we are between a proverbial rock and a hard place,” said Commissioner Barbara Brown at the packed meeting. “For me, I want to do the less worse thing.”
“This is about preserving our options,” said Commissioner Darrell Clarke. “If we don’t do this today, we may not have the chance after November.”
Working to stem the tide of condominium conversions and, at the same time, coax other development -- such as denser affordable multifamily housing -- the commission recommended giving exemptions to preferred projects, allowing them to be built larger and approved more quickly.
Yet Commissioner Gwynne Pugh, an architect, said he felt he and his colleagues were “thrashing around in the dark.”
“My fear here is of unintended consequences,” Pugh said, noting that lowering the allowable heights and sizes of future projects – or down-zoning – could actually exacerbate Santa Monica’s already critical housing shortage.
It may also harm two long years of outreach performed to update the City’s main zoning document, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of the general plan.
“If we’re not careful, we could lose all or most of what we’ve accomplished until now,” Pugh said.
Commissioner Terry O’Day suggested that the commission make no recommendation to the council, arguing that the community has not reached an agreement on even some of the core themes that will help shape future development.
“Do not take action… because (the proposal) does not reflect the consensus in the community, and there is not as much urgency as there is perceived to be,” said O’Day, an environmental executive running for council in November.
Land use Attorney Chris Harding echoed O’Day’s sentiment.
“What’s happening here is because of the Anderson Initiative, not because there’s a consensus,” Harding said, adding that a lawsuit could ensue if the City maintains its current course.
Harding argued that if the city’s developers and businesses aren’t backing the plan, there could be no true consensus.
City planners, however, told the commission they felt there was general agreement on major themes, such as keeping the scale of the city “livable.”
Several members of the public -- including a director of anon-profit arts group trying to add on to her building and a developer offering an eco-friendlier building near a future transit hub -- spoke against changing the zoning standards
However, members of two neighborhood groups -- the Ocean Park Association and Friends of Sunset Park -- said they were concerned the measure does not go far enough.
“There is this continued concern with this tremendous growth,” said Lorraine Sanchez, a Friends board member.
Sanchez said that, based on City figures, Santa Monica would grow to 200,000 people if current trends continue. She argued for restricting buildings in her neighborhood to two stories that are no more than 30 feet tall.
“It is s a difficult situation,” said Sanchez. “We can’t do nothing, but if we do all the maximum development proposed, we will no longer have the same city.
“If we down-zone, that is a good thing,” she said. “There is no way for my kids be able to live in this City, but why ruin the entire City for whoever does live here, that can afford to live here?”
Clarke and fellow Commissioner Jay Johnson said that while the proposed changes might be controversial, the council can always revisit the zoning laws in the future.
With November looming, City staff will now work to take the Planning Commission’s recommendations to a City Council that has three incumbents seeking reelection.
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