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Santa Monica Watchdog Group Warns New Plan Primes Downtown for “Runaway” Building and Traffic  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 19, 2017 -- After years of alterations, the final City plan designed to guide new building in the heart of Santa Monica has left downtown primed for "runaway” development and traffic, a local watchdog group is warning.

The Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is still weighted too heavily in favor of developers and leaves residents with little -- if any -- voice in the downtown’s future, said the nine-page critique by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).

“It’s their downtown, after all,” the report said of Santa Monica's citizens.

The City seems unable to get a “realistic handle” on how to allow moderate growth, the critique said, and instead is clearing a path for “intense, fast-track” projects that overload already gridlocked streets and rob the landscape of much needed open, or park, space.

Why? it asks.

“Santa Monica is already so built out, an enormous tourist center, a huge regional office hub, with significant multi-family housing, home to a 30,000-student college, two major, growing hospitals, with our streets and sidewalks over taxed, and more.

“Yet, the DCP never adequately answers 'why' so much more rapid development -- over 3 million square feet, an excessive amount (much of it luxury hotels),” the report said. “We are not a big city and our downtown is relatively small. Wouldn’t more moderate growth be better?”

Six years in the making, the final version of the DCP was unveiled with fanfare last Wednesday by City planners.

Criticized over previous years by critics in the local slow-growth movement, City planners undertook an unprecedented eight-month “public outreach” campaign to gauge public sentiment, which officials said was melded into the newest draft.

Developers were muted in their response. Some have argued in the past the DCP is too arduous. Neighborhood groups -- among the plan's toughest critics -- had reservations.

SMCLC, a major player in the city's slow group movement, remained quiet until it released its new analysis Tuesday.

As of now, the DCP limits downtown development to buildings of four to five stories, but would allow high-rises on "opportunity sites" and near the new Downtown light rail station ("Santa Monica Downtown Plan Seeks to Strike a Compromise, Officials Say, But Some Remain Skeptical," April 13, 2017).

Making peace over the plan is difficult because the two sides see downtown and its future in starkly different ways.

The DCP is meant to reflect the City’s dedication to New Urbanism, a popular antidote to sprawl that concentrates building at the city core. It creates new "livable" neighborhoods close to jobs, services and public transit in the hope of freeing dwellers from cars, gridlock and pollution.

Because Santa Monica's downtown is already built out, more building means projects increasing in height.

The DCP initially cleared the way for 3.2 million square feet in new building ("Nearly 3.8 Million Square Feet Await Approval in Santa Monica's Jammed
Development Pipeline,"
November 3, 2016).

City officials say no net new traffic would be created because use of personal vehicles would be replaced with alternatives such as light rail, buses, walking and biking.

Although the amount of new square footage allowed isn’t different from past decades, opponents say the City has already reached its reasonable limit.

The proposed high-rises, they argue, will end what is left of Santa Monica’s SoCal beach-town vibe, cut off its street-level view of the Pacific and block sunlight and its famous ocean breezes, SMCLC said.

SMCLC’s examination of the plan also has little positive to say about another key City argument: The new building is vital to easing the severe shortage of affordable housing that afflicts Santa Monica, as elsewhere in California.

The DCP seeks another 2,500 apartment units for downtown, but SMCLC says the City has a poor track record of meeting its own law requiring that 30 percent of those apartments be earmarked for low-income earners.

This year, the City only managed to reach the 12 percent mark, the report noted -- a failure it has repeated often over the years but for which there are no consequences under the law adopted by voters in 1990 ("Santa Monica Again Fails to Meet Affordable Housing Mandate," October 27, 2017).

New tax money and other revenue means the City can no longer plead poverty when it fails to provide affordable housing, SMCLC said in its report. And it no longer needs to approve big, multi-story apartment complexes to leverage affordable housing.

The strategy “ultimately results in very few affordable units,” it said. “The City should stop kidding itself.”

SMCLC also delves into an issue seldom discussed: The DCP has no mechanism for preventing shoddy architecture and its impact on the character of Santa Monica’s iconic downtown.

“The result could be numerous charmless, poorly conceived projects that lack a sense of place, and which could be built anywhere, blotting Santa Monica for generations to come,” the report said.

“There is no mechanism with any teeth in it to prevent shoddy architecture. The DCP is largely a lost opportunity to make our City better,” it said.

Among the coalition’s recommendations are that the DCP should require at least five council members to approve projects of five floors or more and the public to vote on projects of six stories or more and on projects on public land, “with common sense exemptions.”

It also should require a yearly cumulative review of upcoming projects over four stories in height or of 50,000 square feet so the aggregate impact can be determined and only “the best” development allowed to go forward.

In addition, City officials should reduce the more than three million square feet allowed under the proposed building cap and require a public vote of any attempt to exceed the reduced total.

The coalition also recommends that the City’s “Mobility Plan” should be recreated into one that is “actually working." Any significant new development will worsen traffic in a downtown already infamous for gridlock at peak hours, the report cautioned.

The DCP is based on the City’s goal of “no net increase” in evening rush hour traffic. The baseline was set 15 years ago, when the City determined about 60,100 vehicles were on City streets between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Officials are planning to update the numbers.

So far, the City’s aggressive -- and costly -- public relations campaign and other efforts to wean the populace from vehicles does not seem to have changed behavior, at least yet.

The newest study, conducted by outside contractors, showed people in Santa Monica still jump in cars most of the time, whether to travel a few blocks or miles ("Study Finds Santa Monica Residents Still Sticking to Cars," March 7, 2017) .

“We understand it is a process,” the coalition's report said. “But it has not begun to make real progress is six years.”

The DCP now goes to rounds of community meetings and to the city Planning Commission. It needs final approval from the council, which isn't expected for several months.

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