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Santa Monica Council Moves to Prevent Taller Buildings on Two Boulevards

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

May 7, 2015 -- In a split vote, City Council members Tuesday approved eliminating the option of allowing taller buildings on Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, including projects that mix commercial space and housing.

After a sharply divided debate, Council members voted 4 to 3 to remove the Tier 3 category -- which included a strict project plan review process for new developments -- from the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE).

According to City documents, Tier 3 provided “the greatest level of review and control by the City” over all proposed developments on Wilshire and Santa Monica.

But it also would have created an approval process for allowing developers to build some of the tallest developments in Santa Monica.

The Tier 3 amendment to the LUCE galvanized opposition by several community groups including Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), Wilmont Neighborhood Association, Northeast Neighbors, Santa Monica Mid-City Neighbors, and Residocracy, which called for eliminating Tier 3 from the LUCE.

“It's been kind of crazy situation the way it's been the last few years where a lot of people feel they need to come down and hassle the City Council every week because they feel they're not being represented,” said Jim Pickrell, a 20-year resident.

“Residents are very concerned about traffic, about building too many buildings for our infrastructure to handle,” he said.

Pickerell was one of more than 100 speakers who testified, most of them in favor of eliminating Tier 3. More than 100 speakers also testified at a hearing on the LUCE last month.

Council members voted along the same lines in approving a separate appeal of a Planning Commission recommendation regarding Activity Centers, which are special exempt zones near bus and rail lines where taller and denser projects could be allowed.

The vote removed the Activity Centers designation for Wilshire Boulevard at Centinela and at 14th Street.

Mayor Kevin McKeown and Council members Tony Vazquez, Sue Himmelrich and Ted Winterer voted yes on both of the appeals, while Council members Terry O’Day, Pam O’Connor and Gleam Davis cast the opposing votes.

“Activity Centers are out,” McKeown said after the vote.

Davis argued that the idea of creating Activity Centers was to put residents near public transportation, including bus lines. She said removing them will result in development concentrated mostly near Expo Light Rail stations.

“Wilshire is the busiest bus corridor in the City,” she said.

In comments echoed by O’Day and O’Connor, Davis said the City was making a potentially irreversible error by eliminating Tier 3 for Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards from the LUCE, which is a set of documents establishing the land use, design and transportation goals for the City for the next quarter century.

Santa Monica already faces a housing shortage, and Tuesday’s decision will worsen the situation, Davis said.

“If we make a mistake here it will be a 25-year mistake about not building housing in a situation where we don’t have any,” she said. “So for a group of people who claim to support housing, I’m actually, quite honestly stunned that we’re not erring on the side of housing.”

Keeping the Tier 3 designation would allow the City to attract “the type of projects I thought we all wanted for Wilshire,” said Davis, adding that “it doesn’t look to me like there’s enough profitability to encourage Tier 2 on Wilshire.”

Tier 3 allows for one additional floor to be added to the height limit on buildings on Wilshire, and an additional four stories for buildings on Santa Monica, space that could provide badly needed housing, Davis said.

“So we’re not talking about over-building here by any sense of the imagination,” she said.

But Vazquez said the Council could always revisit the issue, “if in a few years it turns out that we’re not getting the housing we want.”

Most of the speakers Tuesday were from Residocracy, an Internet-organized slow-growth organization that believes much of the development proposed in Santa Monica is “Too Tall, Too Big, Too Much,” according to one of the group’s slogans.

Council members initially were scheduled to vote in June on an updated LUCE crafted by the Planning Commission. Commissioners also worked on a new Zoning Ordinance, which the Council also is scheduled to vote on June 23.

However, some Planning Commissioners and residents’ groups appealed certain portions of the revamped LUCE, sending the objections on to the Council to settle Tuesday.

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