Just how tall should a developer be allowed to build a new building in Santa Monica’s downtown core?
That question was not asked or answered at the June 11 council meeting. However, Council members had a divisive debate last week about holding off on as many as four proposed development agreements until height restrictions in the downtown are deliberated within the next several months.
A policy direction proposed by Council members Kevin McKeown, Tony Vazquez, and Ted Winterer to slow down the public process for proposed developments who seek to build projects higher than 84 feet, or six stories, was shot down early last week, as the trio who sponsored the discussion item could not muster support from another colleague.
Those who opposed the staff direction worried it might actually limit the public process.
McKeown said during the meeting and in an email afterwards the intent of the staff direction was ensure the timing of how the process played out would be properly executed and enforced, adding the direction would “give the public confidence that we are first looking at the downtown holistically before approving individual projects.”
A key element of the debate was the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP). McKeown, Vazquez, and Winterer urged for greater patience – especially with respect to opportunity sites – so that developments could properly sync up with the DSP, which is still being formulated and is expected to be considered by council members as early as March 2014.
“There’s no reason why we must go ahead with the discretionary decisions on these development agreements prior to the completion of the Downtown Specific Plan,” McKeown stated.
Though it appears unlikely any development agreements in question would come to the council for a final decision before the DSP were completed, McKeown explained in an email after the June 11 meeting the significance of being patient.
“My intent, along with my colleagues Ted and Tony, was to keep us from backing ourselves into a situation where we have a project with approval momentum that does not match what the community decides it wants in the Downtown Specific Plan,” McKeown wrote in his email.
During the June 11 council meeting, he explained what he meant by “approval momentum.”
“Some of these projects will be coming to planning commission and ARB, and … my concern there, which goes back to the public perception that these are being rushed through, is that those discretionary hearings by advisory bodies of the council, while not final, do lead people to conclude there is a certain process momentum being garnered by these projects,” McKeown stated.
“I think it would behoove us to focus on the Downtown Specific Plan, not on these few exceptional projects, until we know what the community wants our downtown skyline – and particularly our oceanfront skyline – to look like,” he added.
In his follow-up email, McKeown gave perspective of why he worried about momentum
“Every time a project comes for one of the iterative discretionary hearings scheduled and conducted by the City, … whether it is called a float-up or a design review or a DA adoption, that project gains something very real called approval momentum,” McKeown wrote. “It is much harder to go back and rethink a project once it has been reviewed and passed forward, even preliminarily.”
City staff noted three proposed development agreements are currently on tap with plans to exceed the 84 feet height restrictions, all hotels: Miramar’s renovation and expansion, the proposed Ocean Avenue Hotel on the corner of Ocean and Santa Monica Boulevard, and the Holiday Inn/Wyndham project on Colorado.
The Miramar is still in its Environmental Impact Review process and would not be considered by planning commission, Architectural Review Board (ARB), or the council before March 2014.
However, the Ocean Avenue Hotel proposal is scheduled to be on the docket for planning commissioners and the ARB before the DSP makes it to the council in March 2014.
If the proposed policy decision were approved, planning commissioners and the Architectural Review Board would review the Ocean Avenue Hotel project no sooner than March 2014.
City staff has not yet worked on the Holiday Inn/Wyndham proposal though it is possible the development may be considered by planning commissioners and the ARB prior to next spring.
A fourth project – a city-owned property in the downtown core – is also on the docket. According to City Manager Rod Gould, there are three Requests for Proposals for that property, each one proposing a development exceeding the 84 feet height restriction. Gould added City staff would bring proposals to the council before next March.
“None of the projects would have been stopped by the action we proposed. They just would have waited for the proper sequencing of planning choices,” McKeown said in his email.
Mayor Pam O’Connor was worried the proposed policy direction would set up unrealistic expectations within the community that under no circumstances could a developer propose a project exceeding a certain height.
McKeown emphasized the intent of the proposed policy decision was not to say deny developers the opportunity to propose projects exceeding prescribed height restrictions but instead wait on deliberating upon those proposals at planning commission, ARB, or city council until the DSP is finalized.
Vazquez said the issue was not so much height restrictions but instead focusing on process.
“I’m really more concerned about making sure we set the tone and to send the message out the development community that we really need to be looking at this Downtown Specific Plan, have that discussion, air it out, and then let’s continue with the process of making a decision of what is going to be a reasonable height in the downtown area,” he stated.
The council was deadlocked, 3-3, on the policy direction. As the direction did not go forward, the status quo remained.