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Santa Monica Council Indicates Developers Should Provide More Benefits  


By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

April 11, 2012 -- The Santa Monica City Council Tuesday night voiced its desire for more community benefits from developers who want to build large projects in the beachside city that require Development Agreements (DAs).

Responding to a staff presentation, the council called for a stronger definition of what constitutes a community benefit, a more aggressive stance from the City when it comes to demanding community benefits and a more defined process for input from residents regarding what they want out of developments.

DAs -- which allow developers to exceed zoning and land use standards, while remaining consistent with local planning policies under the general plan -- give the City the opportunity to negotiate for community benefits, such as open space, affordable housing or living wages for employees in the case of hotels.

“We have been giving applicants credit for things that, in my mind, should be requirements,” said Mayor Pro Tem Davis, adding that benefits such as LEED certification and Transportation Demand Management plans should not be considered extras, but rather should be required of developers.

Planning Commissioner Vice Chair Ted Winterer echoed that stance during his testimony. “The proposals that come before us are meager at best,” he said, adding that pushing for the appropriate amount of community benefits in DAs was swimming upstream.

He proposed that the City make it clearer to developers what sort of community benefits package would be expected of them if they want to develop in Santa Monica, an idea that gained traction with the council.

But Paul Silvern, a partner with HR&A advisors, warned against pushing too hard for more benefits.

“Development agreements are not Christmas trees on which you can hang all sorts of community benefits ornaments,” he said, adding that, eventually, the branches bend too far, rendering a project financially unfeasible.

The comment prompted Council member Bobby Shriver to respond, “No one, since I've been here, has been dressing up a Christmas tree. We've been clawing to get items.”

Tuesday's council study session comes as the number of Development Agreements being negotiated by the City continues to grow to record proportions.

A map projected at Tuesday's meeting showed 15 purple dots representing DAs, primarily concentrated in the Downtown and Bergamot station areas of Santa Monica, where stations will be built for the Expo Light Rail line scheduled to be completed in 2015.

According to a recent City report and updated actions tracked by The Lookout, two major projects are  currently under construction with DAs and seven already have been approved and are waiting to be built.

Another three major projects that have not yet been approved are currently in the planning pipeline. And the council Tuesday night was presented with another two new projects, both Downtown hotels, that would require DAs.

That compares to a total of 12 projects built with DAs between 1981 and 2007.

Of the eight projects approved with DAs during the past five years, six of them were approved since the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE) was adopted by the council in 2010, and four were approved since the previous report in January 2011. The LUCE requires DAs for buildings taller than 32 feet.

One of the major points of Tuesday's discussion revolved around what should be counted as a community benefit in a design.

The LUCE established five categories for community benefits -- new affordable and workforce housing; emissions and congestion reduction; community physical improvements; social, cultural and educational facilities, and historic preservation, according to staff.

The recent DA for the hotel at 710 Wilshire Boulevard, given final approval Tuesday night, counts “historic preservation” as a community benefit because the developer plans to preserve the landmark Santa Monica Professional building as pare to the project.

The DA also includes a local hiring provision that gives preference to Santa Monica residents and a living wage for workers, a benefit that could be required of the two other proposed Downtown hotels presented to the council Tuesday night.

That DA also has a Transportation Demand Management plan – which has become standard in Santa Monica's DAs – designed to mitigate traffic caused by the new project.

Other projects have included on-site affordable housing, internships, bicycle facilities, and ground-floor  public space.


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