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Community Weighs in on Opportunities and Challenges

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

September 30 -- Some 45 citizens joined the City Council Tuesday night to weigh in on the "opportunities and challenges" the city faces as it updates the document that will shape the future of Santa Monica for decades to come.

Speakers from the floor included City commissioners, neighborhood representatives and education advocates who wanted to make sure that their interests were kept in the loop as the General Plan update moves forward.

But most of the residents who turned out for the latest step in a multi-year process worried that over development would overrun Santa Monica.

"We're all worried," said Grace Phillips, a 10 year resident. "We've seen what we like about Santa Monica get slowly eroded."

Several speakers voiced suspicion of City planning staff and criticized the recently released Opportunities and Challenges Report -- a phone-book sized document of conditions and trends that will guide the update.

In particular, they were alarmed at possible development options that could lead to five-to-eight-story buildings and as many as 14,500 new housing units being built over the next 20 years.

"This is not a plan that is motivated by what the citizens need or want," Ocean Park resident Sue Miller told the council. "This plan is not driven by need.... but by greed."

Later in the meeting, Mayor Pam O'Connor commented that Santa Monica will have to "accommodate" some growth because "there is going to be growth in the region."

The questions Santa Monica must deal with, O'Connor said, are "how do we handle residential growth? How much residential growth do we need to accommodate?"

If the City abdicates its responsibility, the State could step in and mandate a solution, she added.

O'Connor suggested that existing residential neighborhoods could be "protected" by exploring housing options in other parts of the city.

"The LMSD (Light Manufacturing and Studio District) will probably not go back to manufacturing," O'Connor said. "Is that someplace there could be some housing development that would not impact the rest of the City?"

On a similar note, Council member Richard Bloom suggested Lincoln Boulevard as an "exciting opportunity" to create a "new neighborhood" with a "unique feel."

During the three-and-a-half hour study session, the council and the public weighed in on a host of planning policy questions that included building heights and density limits, affordable and middle-income housing, mixed use and re-use of buildings, protecting small businesses, historic preservation, commercial growth, mass transit and parking.

While residential development took center stage, spokespersons for City and civic groups made sure their specific issues were heard.

Pico Neighborhood Association spokesperson Maria Loya asked the council to "keep the issues of working families in the center of the process," adding that economic development should focus on "jobs and... preserving small businesses in the community."

Sandy Grant, Chair of the Sustainable City Task Force, reminded the council of her group's recommendations that all ideas should refer back to questions of sustainability.

Landmarks Commission Chair Roger Genser said "we need to develop incentives to landmark buildings to allow them to be re-used."

Shari Davis, co-chair of the Committee for Excellent Public Schools, said that middle-income housing that teachers can afford is needed.

Friends of Sunset Park member John Reynolds reminded the council that the City's agreement to operate the airport will end in 2015 at which time "you will have the largest undeveloped piece of land in your laps."

He asked that the update "address the airport whether it is inside or outside the process."

But staff warned that making plans for the airport would be risky business.

Over the years, the City has been embroiled in numerous lawsuits over the airport which is largely governed by federal statutes and regulations.

Any study now suggesting that the City has its eye on the property would likely result in a lawsuit that could jeopardize the entire General Plan update, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie explained.

In any case, the ultimate fate of the airport will likely end up in the hands of a Federal judge, Moutrie added.

However, the City can safely survey residents for their ideas and opinions, Moutrie said.

But while the airport will present future challenges for the City, several residents Tuesday night brought some challenges of their own, suspicious that the Planning Department is looking to development for a cash cow.

"The real economic engine driving this whole thing is the Santa Monica redevelopment agency," said Matt Baird, who is a frequent speaker at public meetings.

Baird worried about massive growth in the Earthquake Redevelopment Project zone -- an area encompassing more than half of Santa Monica. City Hall wants large condominiums built there, Baird said, because the difference in increased property tax revenues would go directly into City coffers.

"We, the public, tell you we don't want higher buildings and more density," Baird said. "And (then) staff comes back and says the residents want higher buildings and more density.

"Stop twisting our words and misrepresenting our needs," he said.

At Baird's final comment, the audience let out a loud cheer -- which is against house rules. Mayor O'Connor was quick to restore order.

"All right. We are going to have a recess right now!" O'Connor admonished the crowd.

Calling for "a level playing field," O'Connor explained that such outbursts of approval make others with opposing views feel "intimidated."

Later in the meeting, Council member Ken Genser remarked that "some people" seem to have the "impression" that the Opportunities and Challenges Report is a "policy document."

"I see it as a fairly neutral analysis" Genser said, adding that the report merely presents "a range of options."

"People should not assume that there's a policy implied here," Genser said. "I truly believe that the sentiment of a huge segment (of residents) was heard tonight.

"We need to look at a general development policy that truly limits the growth of the city," Genser said, expressing a view that was echoed by others on the council.

City planning staff will now begin crafting a list of "alternatives and trade offs" to take to the planning commission later this fall.

The process will continue through the winter and then be brought to the community next spring before going back again to the planning commission.

When the update is completed in 2007, the new General Plan will form the policy backbone for land use ordinances and traffic planning over the next 20 years.

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