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Residents Pack Hearing on Santa Monica's Zoning Ordinance

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

April 16, 2015
-- How big a city, how dense, how much housing and for whom? What rules should there be for historic buildings and new developments, parking lots, existing and future hotels, day care and activity centers, car dealerships and cell towers, not to mention pot shops?

Santa Monica residents went soul-searching for answers to those and more questions at the first public hearing Tuesday for the City's Draft Zoning Ordinance Update and its accompanying Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), two massive documents representing the most sweeping set of code changes in three decades.

More than 135 people spoke during the five-hour hearing – the first of two on consecutive nights -- in a packed Council Chambers on City Hall's second floor.  Another 30 or so residents watched it on a TV downstairs, several of them sporting tags on their shirts with slow-growth group Residocracy's slogan, “Too Tall, Too Big, Too Much.”

Speakers spanned the gamut of Santa Monica's grassroots neighborhood organizations, nonprofits groups and business associations -- and their sometimes clashing interests.

They represented Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), Pico Neighborhood Association, Welmont Neighborhood Association, Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SMART), Northeast Neighbors, Santa Monica Mid-City Neighbors, Residocracy, Forward Santa Monica, Ocean Park Association, and other groups.

As promised by Mayor Kevin McKeown, everyone who filled out a card got a chance to speak.
“We want to hear -- fairly -- from everybody in this public hearing,” said McKeown, who worked to keep things moving by strictly enforcing the two-minute time limit on comments. “Now we certainly know, because we've been getting emails, that there are very divergent opinions about this and people are very passionate about it.”

He opened by explaining some ground rules for the Council --  unlike a typical public hearing members were free to comment -- and reminding residents they'll have another chance to speak at a public hearing May 5, when the Zoning Ordinance will be introduced to the Council for a first reading, the last step before it's formally adopted as law.

“This gives us a chance to do a fresh, brand-new zoning ordinance that's easier to work with, to navigate, to find things, and we think we've accomplished that with this draft,” said Planning Director David Martin in his opening presentation.

Martin added that the draft eliminates duplications and contradictions between the 26-year-old Zoning Ordinance and the often-amended LUCE adopted in 2010.

The revised LUCE also establishes a Tier Two review process for future development that will replace the City's cumbersome Development Agreement process for developers who request code exemptions, said Martin. More than 30 such agreements “are in the pipeline” awaiting review, he added.

Tier Two applicants would pay the City certain fees and would be required to add affordable housing to their projects, said Martin.

Some residents supported that change, arguing it would speed up construction of badly needed affordable housing, but others said it will permanently codify high-rise, high-density projects, increase traffic congestion and add other burdens to neighborhoods.

Most of the concerns from the residents' groups centered on proposals addressing development on Santa Monica's main transit corridors and around the City's new Expo Light Rail Line stations and how they will impact adjacent neighborhoods.

Residents groups including SMART and Residocracy, a citywide movement that sprang up online, and most of the traditional neighborhood-based associations oppose either parts or all of the proposed LUCE.

“I'm an angry resident,” said Laura Wilson, who lives next to a new hotel. “I'm angry because I'm experiencing what happens to you when commercial moves next to your house.

“I'm really upset about it. I just want you to know if you do what you did to me to the other residents, you're going to have a thousand angry residents like me on your hands.” 

Some residents complained that the draft encourages “cookie-cutter” projects; others that it lacks sufficient incentives for affordable housing and ignores green spaces.

“As fashion, we're the artistic boutique that doesn't want to be a chain,” said Phil Brock. “As people, we want to stand apart, not blend in.

“We can add housing in Santa Monica without adopting the tall buildings of downtown L.A. or Westwood. Our buildings should be lower, more comfortable, with terrace design, incorporate space and green areas.”

Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) co-chair Oscar de la Torre, the night's 100th speaker, asked the Council to consider the group's plan for an overlay district for the Pico Neighborhood. Other (PNA) members spoke about the need to preserve housing for the neighborhood's very low-income residents.

Opinions were also split on the draft's proposals for where day care centers will be allowed and also on its inclusion of two proposed medicinal marijuana dispensaries on Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards, which would be the City's first.

“One thing that hasn't been communicated well to the public with respect to these proposed locations is that there happen to be over 50 schools, parks, churches, synagogues and youth programs located within one to two blocks,” said David Zepeda.
Another resident asked the Council to consider expanding zoning for dispensaries beyond the two locations.

Taffy Patten of the Residents' Coalition accused the City of brushing the concerns of community groups aside.

“No, we are not fearful and scared whack-a-doodles,” she said.

Other speakers complained about the heated rhetoric.

“I'm concerned about the recent negative response of some neighborhood groups and extreme citizens' organizations which present themselves as representatives of the population as a whole,” said Dwight Flowers. “Nothing could be further from the truth,”

Andrew Moyer said the debate has caused “people I call friends to write on social media things that are downright mean to each other.”

“I want to know what kind of city Santa Monica will be,” Moyer said. “Will it be a city that embraces a diverse populous with a place for folks from every economic layer, or will it be a place where tourists and multi-millionaires buy timeshares in hotel/condo towers, with these incentivized by two- and three-bedroom apartments?”

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