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By Frank Gruber
The City Council held a hearing Tuesday night on reducing the design review threshold for downtown, but few downtown residents cared enough to testify.
By my count, only seven people showed up to support reducing the threshold, and four of them were Kelly Olsen, Ellen Brennan, Arthur Harris, and Joy Fulmer, all City Council regulars of one sort or another. Only two residents of the streets most affected -- Fifth, Sixth and Seventh -- showed up.
This low level of public outrage is particularly surprising because, unusual in the context of Santa Monica residential development, there has in fact been a lot of construction. In response to changes the City made in downtown zoning, developers have built hundreds of apartments, so many that supply is having an effect on prices.
Perhaps you have seen the billboard on Lincoln advertising new apartments at Seventh and Santa Monica, offering a month's free rent. When was the last time landlords were competing for tenants in Santa Monica?
Gee, what a concept -- after all the hand-wringing about Santa Monica losing its middle class, something can in fact be done to address our shortage of middle-income housing. Build apartments!
As reported in The Lookout ("Council Lowers Downtown Threshold, July 24), the council voted 4 to 3 to subject nearly all development downtown to discretionary review, notwithstanding not only the collective yawn from the public, but also the fact that most council members expressed their commitment to the development standards the City enacted in the 1990's for downtown, and their desire that developers continue to build there.
There is ample evidence that few if any developers will risk running the gauntlet of review, because outcomes have been so uncertain even when proposed developments are well within the standards established by zoning.
But what bothers the proponents of the reduced threshold is that some developers have avoided discretionary review by building separate, smaller projects on contiguous parcels -- "slicing and dicing," in the words of Ken Genser. They say that quality has suffered.
Both Genser and Planning Commission Chair Kelly Olsen, speaking from the floor, showed slides of the buildings they believe have skirted the City's rules.
Olsen's view is that these developments are just too big, and he expressed his frustration that the Planning Commission couldn't stop them from being built.
Genser, however, supports the City's current downtown zoning plan. He believes, however, that if developers had built these "sliced and diced" projects as larger, unified projects they would have had more design flexibility, to make better projects, and that there would have been no need for multiple pedestrian and vehicle entrances that reduce the amount of pedestrian friendly retail that the City wants on the first floors of these buildings.
Genser's most egregious examples, however, were out of date. His biggest complaint was that each individual project required multiple parking entrances on the street, thus hurting the pedestrian ambiance. Since passage of the downtown design guidelines in 1997, however, all parking entrances have been located in the rear, in the alleys.
As for multiple pedestrian entrances to the apartments, they increase pedestrian friendliness.
While Genser objects to multi-lot projects that skirt development review, reducing the review threshold means that even bona fide single lot projects will have to undergo review. He's operating with a hatchet, when a scalpel would be more appropriate.
All the pedestrian ambiance issues Genser raised could be dealt with at the ARB. For instance, if City Council wants more "transparency" for the ground floor retail, then it should give the ARB guidelines to that effect. As it is now, much of the pedestrian-unfriendliness on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets results from the ARB itself, which typically requires excessive landscaping in front of store windows.
Genser has a point that a developer and an architect working with a bigger project would have more flexibility, but that point is moot. Developers who have tried to work with the City to develop bigger projects, such as Target, can't get their projects approved.
Which brings me to the good news. For once, there was little demonizing of developers. Perhaps aware that later in the meeting they would be dealing with a ten-unit condominium project on two lots that has kicked around the review process for four years, the Council listened to developers like Craig Jones and architects like David Hibbert tell them that if they want housing to be built downtown, they had to make their rules clear.
Apparently Council not only listened, but also heard. Three of the four council members who voted to reduce the threshold, Genser, Richard Bloom, and Mayor Mike Feinstein, along with the three council members who voted against lower the threshold, said that they wanted a faster and more certain review process.
In Bloom's words, Council needed to "bring certainty to the planning process," and at Bloom's suggestion Council requested that planning staff return to Council with ideas about how to do so.
Genser and Feinstein, for their part, both suggested, among other ideas, that Council should take another look at the City's unique environmental standards that result in in-fill projects that otherwise would be exempt from environmental review having to undergo it.
Feinstein went so far as to say that he might not vote to extend the reduced-threshold ordinance beyond its initial 45 days unless improvements would be made to the process.
I believe that these three council members are genuine in their desire to let downtown continue to develop as a real urban center. I am not sure, however, what can be done about the review process, which is inherently ad hoc.
By reducing the review threshold, Council threw the zoning law out the window. The City already exercises architectural review, through the ARB, over all downtown projects. Like all questions of aesthetics, architecture is subjective. What the council has done now is to make development standards subjective, too.
Target, the Boulangerie project, even the ten-unit condominium the council approved after midnight Tuesday, in fact nearly every development that has been subject to development review, provide myriad examples of how project opponents can subvert the planning process with specious environmental arguments and subjective views about what a neighborhood is (as opposed to what the City Council has zoned it to be).
Tuesday night Kelly "Neighborhood Compatibility" Olsen and Kevin "It's the Traffic, Stupid," McKeown made it clear that they consider the review process an appropriate tool for undercutting zoning standards the council enacted as law after considerable public process.
If Genser, Feinstein, and Bloom truly want "to bring certainty to the planning process," they will need to think hard how to manage discretionary review.Good luck.
views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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