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Planning Board Hears From Land Use Experts:

Two consultants appeared at a Santa Monica Planning Commission meeting last Wednesday to discuss concepts that should be considered by the City as part of its revision of the land use and circulation elements of  its General Plan and Zoning Ordinance.

The land use element delineates the distribution of different types of buildings (housing, business, industry, open space, etc.) while the circulation element sets out the location of existing and proposed roads, highways and other modes of transportation.  The zoning ordinance translates the Land Element’s goals and objectives into standards and procedures.  They were last updated in 1984.

STP Advisory Services LLC representative Susanne Trimbath, PhD, an economist, discussed the interrelatedness of housing, jobs and transportation, noting that “having homes is essential for the economic strength of a community…we are looking at housing and we are looking at jobs but we aren’t looking at them together despite the fact they are obviously dependent” and both are inextricably linked to transportation questions.

“If people working here can’t live here … one can’t complain about traffic,” she said, because City policies have caused this situation, adding that housing built for people who work in Santa Monica but who otherwise couldn’t afford to live here (such as teachers, nurses, retail employees) should be called “work force housing” rather than affordable housing.

According to Trimbath, the homebuilding “paradigm has shifted in the last ten years” and that shift should be taken into account by City planners.  Previously, home builders would purchase “large tracts of land and build dozens of homes and sell them.” But, when many houses came on the market at the same time,  the industry was subject to boom and bust cycles.

Now, she said, “Large homebuilders take an option on a large tract of land and begin to sell homes to be built there from a model and they only purchase the land when they are ready to build.”  This practice has ended the boom and bust cycle.

In Southern California,  53 percent of residents own their own homes, compared to the national average of 69 percent.  In Santa Monica, about 35 percent of the residents own their own homes — condo or a single family home.

Trimbath said “one can’t legislate people’s behavior,  but you can look at how people behave and accommodate it through planning.”

She suggested that the City “zone to use” so areas are zoned according to how it wants people to use them.  For example, certain businesses, like a Sav-on or cleaners, should be located near places of employment so people can patronize them during their lunch hour.       

Economic sustainability recommendations were also part of Trimbath’s presentation.  Saying the City relies too much on tourism, she recommended that the City concentrate on developing a more diverse economic base, and should encourage more financial services companies to locate in  Santa Monica.

The second speaker, former USC professor and architect Robert Harris, focused on livable communities, land use density and pedestrian orientation.

He suggested that the City create a “supportive public realm” to accommodate vital basic needs and opportunities for casual social contacts, as well as “tempting” people to use the beaches and parks.

In addition, he said, city officials “should create a City with places of privilege for everyone, everywhere.” Such places would have “distinction and quality” and be “an aggregation of PLACES, of neighborhoods and districts each identifiable to its inhabitants … and to visitors and be accessible.”

“Planning must be clear about values – great purpose – in order to assess costs and to manage the complexity of a contemporary city,” he said.

Harris also suggested that neighborhoods and districts “must respond to the young and old, the healthy and infirm, and to all the modes of movement from walking to transit…All streets, parks and schools and all public buildings must encourage getting out and having some place to go…If you don’t have enough mixed-use and density, you won’t have enough life in the city, and you must balance priorities between pedestrian movement and vehicular movement.” 

He went on to say that “New construction should occur where the infrastructure is already present, and where mixed-uses reduce travel to necessities…a moderate mix of uses on secondary streets provides the opportunity for local business to thrive.”

Concluding his remarks, he said, “Ocean Avenue and the cross streets should be given a high priority for remodeling and Santa Monica should encourage moderate density housing.” 

Earlier in the meeting, the Commission voted to delay appointing a new Chair and Vice-Chair until the City Council appoints a new commissioner to replace Commissioner Arlene Hopkins who is retiring. Her term expired on June 30.

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