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Residents to Talk Height and Density in Santa Monica's Downtown

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

April 9, 2013 – A community meeting next month to seek input on the density and heights allowed for projects in Downtown Santa Monica is already causing a stir, as slow growth advocates organize to oppose a staff plan that would allow high rises in designated areas.

The workshop, scheduled for May 6 at 7 p.m. in the East Wing of the Civic Center, spurred an email from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) urging residents to turn out to oppose a series of proposed projects Downtown.

“Wherever we live,” read the email sent Monday, “we will all feel the impacts of additional rapid population growth, increased traffic and parking shortages, deteriorating air quality, and other strained resources if all of these projects are approved.”

The Downtown Specific Plan – which will be in place until 2030 -- will set height and density limits in the area bordered by Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, Lincoln Boulevard and the ocean.

The plan identifies seven locations, called opportunity sites, where density and height limits would be left flexible and could be set on a project-by-project basis, ultimately at the discretion of the City Council.

Opponents of the opportunity sites have characterized them as “Trojan horses” that would allow Miami-beach style development to eventually overrun Santa Monica's downtown.

Projects already have been proposed at three of the sites, including a 244-foot tower designed by Frank Gehry at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. The other projects are the proposed 261-foot Fairmont Miramar tower north of Wilshire Boulevard on Ocean Avenue and a nearly 200-foot tower proposed at the Holiday Inn (now Wyndham) site across from the Santa Monica Pier entrance.

The Plan also identifies the 127,000-square-foot parcel of City-owned land at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue as an opportunity site.

Proponents of the opportunity sites, which were originally identified as key investment sites in the Land Use and Circulation Element adopted in 2010, argue that they would in fact limit development.

Once the Specific Plan is adopted, any project outside of the opportunity sites would have to abide by the height and density limits set by the plan, thereby concentrating large developments at the seven locations.

Also, proponents point out that the sites do not guarantee that projects would exceed the height limits on those sites, but only that the project approval process would be discretionary, much like the current development agreement (DA) process.

Currently, there are an unprecedented 35 pending development agreements (DAs), 17 of them Downtown, including three hotels and mixed-use projects.

“Judging from the amount of proposed downtown development we are seeing, our City will look vastly different in a few years,” SMCLC’s email said.  “As residents it's up to us to tell our City planners, the Planning Commission and the City Council how much growth we want for our city center.”

Still, some argue that this conversation is a necessary part of the process.

"We can never move from contentious to consensus without full and open discussion of the issues residents care about,” said Council member Kevin McKeown.

“This workshop should be a valuable opportunity to hear opinions, sort through trade-offs, and give our planners a better sense of what our community is looking for in a future downtown."

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