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Playing the Percentages  

By Frank Gruber

June 28, 2010 -- As reported in today's Lookout Housing/ Commercial Ratio Debated at LUCE Hearing , at its special meeting Thursday evening the Santa Monica City Council gave the first indications about how much commercial and how much residential development would be planned for in the new mixed-use districts that are called for in the new land use and circulation elements of the City's general plan.

The votes were preliminary, subject to ratification later, but none of the council members challenged the 60-40, commercial vs. residential, ratio for the "Bergamot Transit Village." A 5-2 majority ultimately passed a motion by Council Member Richard Bloom stating that the Mixed Use Creative District near Bergamot should be half commercial and half residential, with a "plus-or-minus" factor of 5 percent. (The motion was opposed by Council Member Kevin McKeown, who said that it didn't provide for enough housing, and by Robert Holbrook, who had said that the city needed more jobs.)

The numbers were clear enough, but as I watched the discussion, I realized that there was confusion about what the percentages referred to; do they refer to what the districts are supposed to look like 20 years from now, or the ratio that should apply now to new development?

This is a big distinction. Given that the proposed districts are now overwhelmingly commercial, if the ratio is a target for the future, then to get there, much more of total new development will need to be residential than if the numbers only apply to redeveloped properties.

It seemed that Planning Director Eileen Fogarty was supporting the "future target" scenario Thursday evening when she told the council that 100 percent commercial projects, like the one that developer Jack Walter wants to build at Stewart and Colorado for Lionsgate, could be balanced in a district by residential projects (such as developer Neil Shekhter's apartment complexes). Planning staff and consultants have also been talking about balancing the existing inventory of commercial development.

But then, the proposed percentages have been cited in the discussions over the development agreements for specific projects, such as the Papermate redevelopment, which indicates that the percentages may be targeted at new development only.

Regardless, my problems with this aspect of the LUCE remain the same. Because of the increase in development allowed (higher floor-to-area ratios), the absolute increase in the number of jobs could easily overwhelm the amount of housing that will be built, exacerbating the egregious situation (for the city and region) that commuters fill 83 percent of the jobs in Santa Monica.

But the LUCE needs to be clear about what the percentages apply to, because the future zoning ordinance will need to be consistent. If the percentages do not apply to each new development, there will need to be continual monitoring of what gets built, and that will affect discretionary approvals. Council Member Bloom included a biannual review in his motion for that purpose. It's clear that planning will not stop when the LUCE is adopted.

I know that it's the job of the council members and staff of the City "look out for number one," i.e., worry about the City's fiscal health, but it bothers me to hear them justify more jobs around Bergamot with the argument that the "costs" of new residents need to be balanced by new revenues.

The City of Santa Monica has one of the highest per capital tax bases in the state. We have a school district that survives on revenues from out-of-district students, because not enough children live here to fill our schools. Yet according to staff, housing for new jobs in Santa Monica should be provided by other, less wealthy cities along the Expo line, or even farther away.

Let them provide the services and the schools. We'll take the money.

I don't want to sound more selfless than I am, but with the Expo line coming, it would make more sense locally and regionally to locate more jobs in Crenshaw, more housing near Bergamot, and, to take care of the City's revenues, a new hotel or two in downtown SaMo.

* * *

The council is trying to digest a huge document in a short period of time, and the issues are piling up. Many of them came out at last week's meeting, and more will come out at the meeting Thursday evening, when the controversial issue of building heights will be on the agenda. Here are my two cents on several of the issues.

Car dealers: This happens to be a big argument over what appear to be small differences. The dealers want to be able to expand more flexibly over more (but not much more) areas in the city than the draft LUCE provides for, but they are willing to have whatever they do be subject to discretionary approval by the City Council. Staff wants to limit the areas for expansion of dealerships, but is willing to give the dealers automatic approval for facilities that fit an "urban" (enclosed, multi-story, and pedestrian-friendly on the street) rather than suburban form.

I find myself liking parts of both proposals. Most of all I like the "form-based" proposal by staff. But I like it so much I don't see what harm there would be in allowing (and encouraging) the dealers to modernize with urban-format facilities on nearly any boulevard in the city. For instance, if we could get rid of Santa Monica Toyota's open lots on Lincoln Boulevard by allowing the dealership to build an enclosed, two-story dealership across the street, what would be wrong with that? (Caveat: I have no idea if the owners of the dealership could or would want to do that.)

If we're concerned about there being too many dealerships, then the dealers' willingness to accept discretionary review would seem to give future City Councils the ability to deal with that. In the Santa Monica Toyota example, approval to build a new dealership could be given contingent on closing the old one.

At the same time, there doesn't seem to be any reason not to encourage residential development in third, fourth and maybe fifth floors above the new urban format dealerships, even if they are located on "auto row," just as the LUCE will encourage the building of apartments above commercial everywhere else on the boulevards. This, as Mayor Bobby Shriver and others have pointed out, is what dealerships look like in cities around the world.

Building Heights: This issue has been blown out of proportion (so to speak). The small increases in maximum heights for a portion of some projects that a majority on the Planning Commission recommended are reasonable and will give architects flexibility not only on ceiling heights but also, at times, for creating more open space.

It's puzzled me why these minor adjustments to heights, which will not increase the amount of development allowed, have attracted so much more attention than the issue of how much commercial development the LUCE allows.

The Village Trailer Park: The sad and complicated story of the fate of the Village Trailer Park, which is located in what will likely be the Mixed-Use Creative District, became a LUCE issue last week. Several residents spoke to the council -- movingly -- about the hardships they face because they are likely to be evicted as the property is redeveloped. In response, Council Member Kevin McKeown moved that the park be removed from the proposed district.

Back in 2007 I wrote about the trailer park and the predicament of its residents. (See: "Portable_Landmark") Re-reading the column, it's clear that issues don't change much in a few years in Santa Monica -- the end of the column is about jobs and housing. And yes, the trailer park residents are still in the same pickle -- notwithstanding that the City has tried to use zoning to protect them, state law would allow them to be evicted, and their advisors have advised them to work out a deal with the property owners for better relocation benefits and possibly new housing.

A majority of the council members voted to keep the negotiations out of the LUCE. Sad to say, but that was a good move.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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