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Santa Monica Downtown Plan Comes into Focus  


By Jorge Casuso

April 16, 2012 -- The Downtown Specific Plan -- a document that will help shape the future of the beach city's "living room" -- is gradually taking shape, as patterns begin to emerge, according to interviews with City officials.

On February 28, the City Council began the task of reconciling disparate input gathered from the extensive outreach to stakeholders and during community input sessions over the past months to help draft a document that will set guidelines for Downtown.

Not only will the Plan articulate the types of buildings that will or won't be built, it addresses key issues such as parking, traffic, circulation, wayfinding and design and density, Downtown officials said.

"The Downtown Specific Plan is the single most important document for the future of Downtown," said Kathleen Rawson, President and CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc (DTSM).  "Likely its most important function will be to articulate what a developer can build by right to encourage long term reinvestment of private dollars into our downtown core.

"The plan has the ability to enhance the pedestrian experience, encourage certain uses such as outdoor dining and neighborhood serving establishments," Rawson said. "It can provide incentives for desired developments such as housing."

Residents want the plan to tackle increased traffic and dwindling parking spaces, help produce attractive buildings with more public art and creative spaces and encourage pedestrian activity, City officials said. They also want more housing and creative wayfinding signage Downtown.

“What people are really looking for is... a friendly, useable downtown,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis.

When it comes to parking, Council member Pam O'Connor said the plan should be realistic, while helping to ease the frustration of searching for parking spaces.

“If ever on a Friday or Saturday night you can find easy parking in Downtown Santa Monica, that's the day I'm worried about Downtown Santa Monica,” O'Connor said.

Council member Kevin McKeown said that the plan should place more emphasis on storefronts that attract pedestrians. There was also a call to make sure that the plan makes provisions for the preservation of historical buildings.

The Specific Plan is required by California state law and must have design standards, zone regulations, its relationship to the City's master plan -- in this case, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) -- and outline how the plan will be administrated.

Adopted by the City Council in July 2010, the LUCE encourages "mixed-use development with complementary uses ensuring that Downtown develops as a complete neighborhood, serving both local residents and the region," Planning Director David Martin wrote in a staff report last year.

The Specific Plan will incorporate guidelines set by the LUCE but will adopt standards tailored to the needs of the area, Martin said.

"Resident and visitor-serving uses and amenities will continue to be a focus, as will increased mobility throughout the area," Martin wrote in his report.

The process to draft a new Specific Plan comes at a time when major developments are being proposed that could transform Downtown.

“This is an exciting time for the evolution of Downtown,” said Sarah Lejeune, a principal planner with the City.

At a community meeting at the Civic Auditorium January 26, residents helped weigh in on the kind of public art they'd like to see more of, the sort of community benefits they value for the Downtown area and the proper balance that should be struck between pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists.

At the meeting, consultant Neal Payton likened the Specific Plan to a conductor, someone who coordinates various – and sometimes disparate – elements into the sounds of a symphony. While adhering to those basic elements, Payton said, it is important that the Specific Plan be flexible.

“Whatever the market is today, it's going to be different in two years,” he said.

Payton, a principal with the urban design firm Torti Gallas and Partners, which is helping craft the plan, said Downtown is "more than a place to shop and eat.” 

“We need to create an environment Downtown that... is a place to be immersed in culture,” he said.
Staff and residents alike enthusiastically agreed.

There will be plenty of opportunities for public input before a draft plan is drawn, City officials said. They hope to have a draft of the plan by the fall of 2012 and, if all goes according to schedule, a final draft by February or March of 2013.


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