Development Agreement (DA) is the buzzword of the day when talking about new building projects in Santa Monica. Although the City entered into its first DA in the 1980’s only a handful have been processed since. Now the City has a whopping 31 DAs in the pipeline. And that’s what the conversation is all about.
A DA is a tool in the planning toolbox.
It allows a City and a developer to enter into a negotiated contract for an exchange of rights and benefits not covered by other, standard planning tools such as conditional use permits and variances. It is a tool that allows greater flexibility. Note however that, by law, all DAs must be consistent with the LUCE.
The LUCE, adopted in 2010, is a blueprint for the build out of the City for the next 20 years. The Zoning Ordinance must conform to the LUCE as it lays out development rights. The new Zoning Ordinance is in progress and a draft will go to the Planning Commission this coming spring and to the Council for final approval at the end of 2013.
The Planning Department currently lists 48 pending applications, a mix of DA requests and Administrative Approvals. Four are hotels: the Fairmont Miramar, the Courtyard Marriott, the Hampton Inn, and 710 Wilshire. Two are for auto dealerships. One is for a Science Classroom Building. One is Bio Tech Research and Development. The rest are for residential development. Some are residential only and some ask for ‘mixed use,’ which is a combination of residential and office and/or commercial.
The two largest projects are ones that, due to their size and their complexity, would be DA applications even after the new Zoning Ordinance is adopted.
The Fairmont Miramar proposes to redevelop the hotel with new food and beverage facilities, spa, banquet facilities, retail space along Wilshire Boulevard and condominiums on the upper floors of new buildings and the retention and rehabilitation of the existing Palisades Building and the preservation of the Landmark Moreton Bay Fig Tree.
At issue are the design changes to a locally and internationally known hotel, the increased size and scale of the proposed project for a new total of 565,000 sq. ft., the addition of new condominiums, and the addition of affordable housing on the 2nd Street property owned by the hotel.
Central to the discussion are the community benefits being offered by the hotel and/or requested by the City as part of the negotiation of the DA contract. The Fairmont Miramar has had two ‘float up’ hearings in front of the Planning Commission and one ‘float up’ hearing in front of the City Council.
The largest requested DA is located on the old Papermate site in the Bergamot District. It is proposed to be a mixed use Creative Arts/Residential and Neighborhood Commercial for a total of 766,000 sq.ft. That includes 498 new residential units in 361,000 sq. ft.; creative arts spaces in 375,000 sq.ft.; and neighborhood commercial in 30,000 sq.ft.
The 766,000 sq.ft. currently being requested is a significant reduction from the original application. The proposal has met with community opposition to both the proposed scale and to the design.
Both projects have been in the pipeline for several years with community meetings and planning meetings. Further meetings for both projects are on a to be determined basis and there will be much discussion on each of these projects in the community and at public hearings.
But what about projects that aren’t grabbing the public’s attention? The greatest number of projects on the Planning Department list is residential.
City Planning Director David Martin said, “This increase is the result of several factors including: LUCE policies that encourage the construction of mixed-use residential projects along transit boulevards and near light rail stations, a CEQA exemption for mixed-use housing projects with 100 units or less located within one half mile of a major transit stop, an increase in the number of rental housing units being proposed and constructed in the Los Angeles region, historically low interest rates, the strong demand for housing in Santa Monica, the stability of Santa Monica as a place to invest, and the overall desirability of the city as a place to live.
Reading from the list of pending applications we see, for example, 32 units in a total of 31,717 sq.ft.; 55 units in a total of 33,137 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 54,280 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 54,942 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 55,064 sq.ft.; 100 units in a total of 37,200 sq.ft.; 498 units in a total of 361,000 sq,ft. These are seven examples of the proposed 40 plus projects that include residential development.
Do the math and you will see that what is being proposed is mostly studios along with some small one bedroom units. Perfectly wonderful as part of a larger mix, but of concern if all, or most, are in this low end of the size range.
Housing of this size and type is traditionally temporary in nature. It is designed for students or for starter housing. It could be used as a weekend or vacation getaway for someone with a house elsewhere. It could have many uses but it typically has one, sometimes two, occupants and a relatively high turnover.
We could change the demographics of our population if all of the proposed residential development were approved as proposed. We could have a less permanent population and therefore perhaps one that is less involved in the City. Yet much of our dynamism as a City comes from the sense of ownership of the City that is felt by so many.
Analyzing the size of residential units to understand their impact on the future of the City is an essential part of the complex decision making process that should go into every DA negotiation.
The LUCE identified Santa Monica as needing more housing and it identified affordable housing as a community benefit. Building smaller units is one way to create affordable housing but there are other ways. Affordable housing for families, for people who work in the City but can’t afford to live here are also identified in the LUCE as a community benefit.
Each project needs to be looked at with an understanding of how it will enhance or detract from the character of the City. Will it bring the kind of benefits identified as we went through the LUCE process? What are the traffic impacts of the project? What are its impacts on schools and parks and City services? What benefits will the project bring to the City?
The hard part for everyone, through all this dry reading, is to be able to “see” the changes each project would make to the future life of the City. But it is that understanding that the Council will ask for as they review the list of projects in the pipeline again at its Feb. 12 meeting.
We want good applicants. Their projects are a part of what makes Santa Monica a dynamic city. As we approve new development let’s remember why the City is so desirable and let’s make decisions protective of the character of the City even as it grows and changes.
What Say You?