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Residents Air Worries Over Height in Downtown Santa Monica

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

May 7, 2013 -- The mood was emotional -- and at times confrontational -- Monday night as residents filled the east wing of the Civic Center to weigh in on the future of development in Downtown Santa Monica.

Dozens of residents lined up to speak to the City's Planning staff and the Planning Commission about the Downtown Specific Plan, many delivering impassioned testimonies about their concerns that unless the City adopts strict height limits, Santa Monica will be overwhelmed by overdevelopment.

While City staff is currently recommending that height limits in Downtown Santa Monica remain roughly the same as under the current standards - - ranging between 32 and 84 feet -- they have identified eight “opportunity sites” where developers could negotiate with the City to build above those limits in exchange for community benefits.

It was those eight sites that became the flash point of much of the testimony Monday night.

“Residents must take back their city,” said Diana Gordon, one of the founders of the slow-growth group Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City (SMCLC), drawing applause. Gordon alleged that planners hadn't considered residents as serious stakeholders.

Gordon was not alone in her suspicion of the opportunity sites, which include three major pending hotel projects along Ocean Avenue. Fear that development would destroy the “human-scaled beach town” was an oft repeated refrain Monday.

One such opportunity site is a two-acre parcel at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue where developers are proposing a 244-foot hotel and condo tower designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.

The proposed Miramar redevelopment project, which would place a 261-foot, 21-story tower less than half a mile north the Gehry project, is also slated for an opportunity site. To the south at Colorado Avenue and Second Street -- another opportunity site -- the Wyndham hotel (formerly the Holiday Inn) is set to propose a 195-foot tower.

“Should we be selling our view and our skyline to the one percent?” former mayor Mike Feinstein asked Staff and the Planning Commission.

A representative of the Huntley Hotel, the Miramar's neighbor and a vocal opponent of the redevelopment project, advocated for restricting the Miramar project to no more than 45 feet and a density of 2.2 Floor Area Ratio, a project that would be significantly smaller than the one currently proposed.

One resident likened the possibility of developing Downtown to leaving the water on in the bathroom and accidentally drowning a cat.

While many showed up to voice their opposition to increased heights Downtown, others advocated for approaching the idea of opportunity sites with open minds.

Local architect and former Planning Commissioner Hank Koning said the proposed sites are a good strategy for allowing growth “where it's sustainable.” He argued that building towers would not lead to more traffic, which he said was largely a regional problem.

Other proposed opportunity sites are the City-owned 127,000-square-foot parcel at 4th and 5th streets and Arizona Avenue, the Sears building at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue, the Fred Segal building at Broadway and 4th Street and the Expo Line Station at the former location of the Sears Automotive building.

Proponents of development pointed to the City's need for housing a new generation that wants to live and work in the beachside city and advocated for housing especially along transit corridors and near the future site of the Expo Line.

City staff reiterated that no decisions had been made yet about the Specific Plan.

“We have not even drafted a plan yet,” said Francie Stefan, the City’s strategic and transportation planning manager. “This is a work in progress.”

Council member Kevin McKeown was one of several Council members who attended Monday's meeting, along with Ted Winterer, Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez.

“Tonight's astonishing turnout and civil discussion of concerns and aspirations should make it easier in the long run for the Planning Commission and the City Council to balance all the divergent interests, if only because, having listened, we understand them better," McKeown said.

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