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LUCE Change  

By Frank Gruber

February 8, 2010 -- For long -- and it's now been six years -- I've been a supporter of the process to write updated land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of Santa Monica's general plan. But now I have to wonder.

There is a lot of good in the draft LUCE plan that is currently undergoing environmental review (the draft environmental impact report was released a week or so ago). The plan admirably focuses the next 20 years of development in Santa Monica on the boulevards and old industrial areas, takes advantage of the coming Expo light rail, is innovative and progressive when dealing with transportation, and expresses an inspiring vision for the city's future.

But the planners who wrote the LUCE seem to have been unaware of the major truth that faced the City when the process began in 2004: the fact that under the prior, 1984 land use element the City allowed the overbuilding of commercial office development, including "creative office," by around five million square feet, creating an insatiable demand for housing, little of which was built.

What other than obliviousness can explain that the draft LUCE still recommends the "expansion of the creative arts and entertainment related jobs in the City"? (I'm quoting from the draft EIR.)

I attended most of the many public meetings on the LUCE, and I never heard anyone say that Santa Monica needed more jobs in the "creative arts" or in any other field.

I'm not saying there should be no job growth in Santa Monica for the next 20 years. Santa Monica has some unique or special assets, such as its tourist attractions and two important hospitals, that will necessarily attract a certain amount of development. Santa Monica also needs more housing, and more residents will require some more businesses.

But explain to me why the LUCE puts a limit on housing, in favor of more commercial, in the new "complete" neighborhoods that it proposes be built on the old industrial properties along Olympic? In this area the LUCE calls for a maximum of 40 percent residential development, the rest to be more offices. As I wrote last week with respect to the redevelopment of the Papermate site, this 60-40 split in favor of commercial development will make our jobs/housing imbalance worse.

For me, all this came to a head last week as I read the staff report for the "float-up" of another project, a mostly-residential development proposed to be built on old industrial lands not far from the future Bergamot Expo line station, and then when I watched the Planning Commission's hearing on the project. (See story

The project, "Paseo Nebraska," is planned for a site between Nebraska Avenue and Olympic Boulevard that currently contains about 80,000 square feet of ramshackle (but charming) studios and workshops. The new development would tear these down and replace them with about same amount of studios, offices and retail. These would be located in ground floors with 18-foot ceilings. All the net new development would be residential: four stories of rental apartments above the commercial, much like the apartment buildings that are common in European cities.

Based on square feet, the project will be about 78 percent residential. But this would violate the LUCE, which says that the maximum amount of residential in this location should be 40 percent.

What's going on? Does anyone want to see more commercial development in this location? Residential development creates less traffic and other impacts than commercial development, and there are already thousands of jobs within walking distance or a quick bike ride from the site. No one living at this location would add to Santa Monica's principal traffic problem of people commuting into the city in the morning and out of it in the late afternoon -- in fact, the apartments will no doubt remove some of those commuters from our streets.

At the Planning Commission there was a lot of discussion about how much of the housing should be built as affordable housing for low-income people, or whether the housing that's not "dedicated affordable" would be affordable to working people.


This is not something I would worry about. While the amount of dedicated, low-income housing will be negotiated, the market rate units, mostly small apartments, and all rentals, will not be the kind of apartments that attract rich executives, who typically want to buy their homes.

For decades Santa Monicans have complained about the replacing of rental apartments with new condominiums. Given these complaints, these apartments would be welcomed for what they are -- living places for middle-income individuals and couples who would trade a bigger dwelling and a long commute for a smaller place close to both jobs and the blandishments of urban living.

At the Planning Commission meeting some nearby residents said the project, because the average size of an apartment would be only 500 or so square feet, would become a "slum." These comments were ugly. Seventy percent of households in Santa Monica rent their residences, many of them small apartments. It's insulting to them to assume that the tenants of these new apartments will be "bad for the neighborhood."

The developer of this project, Neil Shekhter (of NMS Properties) has already built a similar residential project at 20th and Olympic. Designed by Santa Monica firm Killefer Flamang, the same architects who are designing the Nebraska Avenue project, the new apartments and the people who live in them have only been assets for the area.

Keep in mind that post-war suburbia was built on the basis of houses of less than 1,000 square feet -- not everyone needs or wants a McMansion.

As the Paseo Nebraska project moves forward, there will be important issues. According to what I heard at the Planning Commission meeting, planning staff has told the developer to put landscaped open space between the development and Olympic Boulevard. This contradicts the LUCE, which, in Policy B15.1, calls for buildings to put primary facades on Olympic. Olympic needs this kind of "framing" to make it a better street for pedestrians. (I am aware that at this time Olympic at this location doesn't even have sidewalks, but they need to be planned for.)

Freeing up this unusable open space now planned for Olympic would allow for the creation of more accessible open space in and around the project. The plan calls for the developers to dedicate land to allow for the extension of Berkeley and Stanford Streets from Olympic to Nebraska. These streets need to be designed with attention to detail so that they become good places for walking, and the project will need high-quality and usable open spaces.

A good example is Edgemar on Main Street. The little "piazzetta" there designed by Frank Gehry for developer Abby Sher has become a congenial gathering point.

There is another lesson to learn from Edgemar. When Ms. Sher received her approvals, the neighbors on Second Street insisted that the development be walled off from them. That was a mistake. If there were a connection between Edgemar and Second Street, the piazzetta would be part of the neighborhood, to the benefit of everyone who lives there.

While Paseo Nebraska will be a block from the neighborhood to the north of Colorado, it will form a part of the future connection between the neighborhood and the light rail station at Bergamot, and it will attract amenities the neighbors will use. When it's built, they'll love it.

Meeting notice: The Planning Commission will hold a study session on the draft EIR for the LUCE Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

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