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Downtown Santa Monica Officials Call for More Height, Density for Projects

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

May 28, 2013 -- The Downtown Santa Monica Inc.(DTSM) Board voted Thursday to advocate for higher density and height in the commercial heart of the city and to allow for flexibility on eight opportunity sites.

Arguing that it would allow for greater architectural diversity and create more desirable living and retail space, the Board will recommend that the City Council increase height and density limits proposed in the Downtown Specific Plan by some 20 feet west of Lincoln Boulevard.

The Board also will recommend allowing “maximum flexibility” -- at least when it came to Environmental Impact Report (EIR) scoping -- on eight opportunity sites throughout Downtown reserved for large projects that produce community benefits, such as public parking and open spaces.

Former Planning Commissioners Gwynne Pugh and Hank Koning, both architects, along with land use Attorney Chris Harding advocated for keeping those sites open to developments that exceed limits imposed by the Specific Plan.

“For all the fears that have gone on about development,” Pugh said, “we're really talking about something quite small.”

Pugh was referring to the fact that the Downtown -- along with the Bergamot Area – constitutes only four percent of Santa Monica designated by the Land Use and Circulation Element for developments taller than those permitted in the rest of the 8.3-square-mile city.

The opportunity sites are just a small fraction of that four percent, he said, adding that they are the “spice” in the plan and allowed for “variety.”

Board member Patricia Hoffman said she would vote against a recommendation that Downtown Santa Monica Inc. advocate for no height and density limits on these sites but did believe that “flexibility” was desirable.

While opportunity sites proved a sticky subject for some Board members, most of the meeting was spent on height and density limits proposed for the rest of the Downtown area in the Specific Plan.

The major change proposed by the Board is increasing the proposed height limits for Tier 1 projects from 32 feet to 51 feet. Tier 1 developments are “by-right” developments, requiring the least amount of bureaucratic approval.

Downtown staff determined Tier 1 limits were too small and “would likely not be built,” said Kathleen Rawson, the CEO of DTSM.

The next step up, Tier 2 developments, will require a review process that calls for developers to choose from a menu of community benefits they would provide in order to get approval for their projects.

Not everyone was on board with the recommended heights for Tier 1 projects.

“I think the Tier 1 height is too high,” Hoffman said. Since the City hopes to get more community benefits from Tier 2 projects, Hoffman wanted to make sure the height limits encourage Tier 2 development.

“I'm looking at Tier 1 being 51 feet and Tier 2 being 61 feet,” she said. “Is it enough of an incentive to go to Tier 2?”

Rawson pointed out that the City gets community benefits from development in general. “In the process of any development, there are TIFs (Transportation Impact Fees), art fees, park fees,” she said.

Hoffman disagreed. “Those are mitigations of the negative impacts of the development,” she said, not community benefits.

Still, some argued that increasing height and density limits would create a more interesting Downtown.

Architect and former Planning Commissioner Gwynn Pugh agreed, noting that greater height and density limits allow developers to more easily vary their designs.

Pugh likened the process of designing a building to filling a plexiglass box with a finite amount Legos pieces. If the box is bigger, architects could create a design that didn't fill it, allowing for a wider variety of building types.

The Board also voted to allow higher density limits for developers who provide onsite housing.

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