After a lengthy hearing last Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council directed City staff to draft an ordinance that will modify the City’s design standards to encourage more pedestrian-oriented development downtown.
The Council approved the modifications based on the recommendation of the City’s Architectural Review Board (ARB).
ARB Chair Joan Charles told the Council that the projects being built now “do not provide a sense of human scale and pedestrian-oriented characteristics at the street level as called for in our zoning code. Moreover, these buildings don’t add to the beauty and creativity of Santa Monica nor do they encourage pedestrian-friendly uses of the retail spaces.”
Charles and Board members hope the guidelines they proposed will result in “better and more creative architecture in the Downtown core.”
Like the ARB, the City’s Planning Commission felt it was necessary to make the design standards changes now despite the fact the City is in the process of updating its land use and circulation elements of the City’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, as the. update will not be completed until the fall of 2007.
The City staff’s proposed ordinance included significant changes to the City’s development standards, but the Council opted to exclude the changes out of respect “for the land use process we’re already in,” as Council member Kevin McKeown put it. Among the changes proposed by staff but rejected by the Council was taller buildings with more ground floor open space, such as courtyards.
The modifications approved by the Council included minimizing the height of building ground floors on the Promenade to 18 feet and 15 feet in other Downtown areas and employing a range of devices, such as different materials and changes of plane, to differentiate between the ground floor and upper floors. Other modifications were the reduction of landscape requirements so as not to negatively impact business and pedestrian orientation, an increase in pedestrian friendly buildings, a reduction in curb cuts, and an increase in alley access to parking.
The Council also requested that the ordinance include modifications to standardize parking requirements to encourage small neighborhood serving businesses, the establishment of standards for the treatment of developments next to historic structures and a provision ensuring that houses of worship will not be negatively impacted.
Prior to the vote, the Council heard from the public. The Executive Director of the City’s Bayside District Corporation (BDC) Kathleen Rawson stated that the BDC Board was concerned that the design standards being proposed were “far too rigid rather than providing the flexibility” that is needed. She also suggested that that the Council reconsider restoring the 30,000 square foot threshold trigger for the City’s public review process. The current threshold is 7,500 square feet.
Land use attorney Chris Harding echoed Rawson, saying there was “only limited flexibility in the proposed ordinance.”
Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke criticized the process, noting that the item was not agendized for the Planning Commission at all (by City staff). “We only discussed it because I heard about it at the last minute and put it on the agenda. Our understanding from staff at that meeting was the proposed ordinance was intended to include just small changes. Yet, the staff report and what we’re hearing again tonight is bringing us back to what we talked about last year. Where members of the Planning Commission, the ARB and members of the public demonstrated rather strongly over three evenings that taller buildings with back alley-like tiny courtyards were not the solution for the missed opportunities of our downtown building boom. It’s of concern that after the City Council heard it three times and then postponed a decision until the land use update [is complete] it appears to be back.”
Community activist Art Harris also criticized the process, saying, “By the staff presenting things that went beyond what the Council and the ARB had made an initiative for in January the staff is representing its agenda here tonight rather than the agenda of the Council.”
Downtown property owner Jeff Segal told the Council, “I totally don’t understand why we are piecemealing the Downtown zoning ordinance when we are in the middle of the public input phase for the new General Plan.”
Chair Pro Tem Nina Fresco of the Landmarks Commission suggested that the “adaptive reuse of older structures should be incentivized so that older buildings can be incorporated into new development to preserve our historic fabric and streetscapes.”In other business, the Council also approved a bus only lane for Lincoln Boulevard, and appointed Michele Sorrenti Christensen to the Social Services Commission and Ruth Shari to the Landmarks Commission.