Matters of Height

By Frank Gruber

Tuesday evening the City Council will take up two issues left unresolved after the 2002 Civic Center Specific Plan revision, namely how tall to allow apartment buildings in the "Village" residential development along Ocean Avenue, and whether the housing should be entirely rental or if the City should allow the developer of the apartments to sell some units as condominiums.

Last May the City asked potential developers of the Village to submit their qualifications and received sixteen responses. City staff has now narrowed this list to three development teams from which the City will request proposals. (For more details, see the Staff Report.)

Development of the apartments, however, cannot proceed until the Planning Commission and the City Council review the Final Environmental Impact Report, and formally approve the Specific Plan, and that cannot happen until the City Council resolves these last issues relating to residential development.

What the council will not be making any decisions about is how much development to allow; the Council has already decided to permit 325 units, of which at least 160 need to be affordable. (It is worth recalling that this 325 number is a drastic reduction from the 600 units that could have been developed under the 1994 version of the Civic Center Plan; at the figurative last minute during the 2002 process the City dropped additional housing from the area along Ocean north of Olympic Drive in favor of more open space.)

The general limit on height in the Civic Center is five stories and 56 feet. However, by allowing some of the residential development to take the form of one or two towers, of up to either 80 or 120 feet in height, the developer would be able to design a more open plan at street level and also build more large units suitable for families.

If these concerns sound familiar, it's because they are the same issues affecting the decision whether to allow Macerich to build tall towers as part of the redevelopment of Santa Monica Place. The 21-story, 300-foot towers that Macerich has proposed are more than twice the height of the proposed tower (or towers) along Ocean; however, the discussion of the latter Tuesday night will give some indication of the council's attitude toward the sanctity of the five and six story limit that now prevails in even the densest parts of Santa Monica.

The issue of 100 percent rental vs. part condo is related to the height decision by economics. The market-rate units along Ocean will be high-priced no matter what, but obviously the value of some apartments will increase with altitude, because of the views. Taller buildings will mean the potential for more profits for the developer, as well as more bucks to subsidize affordable units and build a better project.

Condominiums at this location will be priced out of the reach of first-home buying working-class and middle-income households, but then that is the case with condominiums throughout the city. The demand is huge and the supply is limited. But it is a false dichotomy to say that the choice is between selling condos on one hand and nurturing middle-income residents on the other.

Back in 2002 I remember Joan Ling from Community Corp. explaining to the Civic Center Working Group that as rents rise beyond a certain point, apartments that might be attractive to permanent, middle-income residents become non-attractive, because they want the financial benefits of ownership.

Ms. Ling pointed out that even true middle-class households (such as those of municipal employees, and as opposed to households that are middle-income by Santa Monica standards but upper-income by national standards) prefer not to rent, even if the decision to buy means they have to commute longer.

According to Ms. Ling, what happens with high rent, rental apartments is that they tend to be occupied by wealthy transients, who may occupy the units seasonally or only part-time. At least with condominiums, the residents will more likely be people who put down roots in Santa Monica.

One market I can see in the future is older Santa Monicans who currently own their homes. As they age and no longer want the responsibilities of tending to a house, they may want to sell their homes, cash out their equity, and buy apartments. If they can stay here, so much the better, and when they sell, that will put single-family houses back on the market for young families.

When one considers that these "luxury" units will be built amid 160 units of affordable housing, in a mixed-use area, amid a lot of jobs, along a busy street, the whole development starts to make sense. While "village" is a strange term to use to describe a development with eight and eleven story buildings (unless you think of Greenwich Village), the development will help create a reasonably complete neighborhood.

The heights being considered are 120 feet for a building that would be next to, and just a few stories higher than, the Viceroy Hotel, and 85 feet for a building next to the Maguire Partners office building at 1733 Ocean Avenue. Neither building would overwhelm its surroundings, particularly considering the width of Ocean Avenue, nor block any views that wouldn't be blocked by a 56-foot building. The Council should vote to give the developer maximum flexibility.

* * *

In the course of writing this week's column I got around to reading the November 2002 draft of the Civic Center Specific Plan itself. If you like this sort of thing, it's a good read, dealing as it does with just about every smart growth issue you can think of. It's mandatory reading for anyone who plans to participate in the discussion about the Civic Center's future, including the fate of Santa Monica Place and the Sears properties.

I understand that the Planning Department may have a few copies still available to the public, and may print more, but if you have a high-speed internet connection and a lot of patience, you can download the document
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