If numbers could spark as much debate and conversation as what took place inside Santa Monica’s council chambers Aug. 13, perhaps more people would have looked forward to algebra or physics class during high school or college.
Yet when it comes to the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), numbers such as 84, 120, and 135 make for gripping drama pitting those who want Santa Monica to remain a friendly beachfront community on one side and those who see potential in the city physically moving upward.
For nearly four hours at the city council’s Aug. 13 meeting, dozens of speakers lined up to chime in on whether the DSP should have restrictive height guidelines.
The central question: how high is too high?
Those vocally opposed to high rises plotting up and down Ocean Avenue say the DSP should cap building heights at 84 feet, which means structures between six and eight stories high.
Others are okay with skyscrapers appearing just above Santa Monica’s coastline, with projects such as the proposal to build a Frank Gehry-designed hotel at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard potentially reaching 22 stories tall.
Simone Gordon, a Santa Monica native, said she wants to see a vibrant and walkable downtown – but at what cost.
“Some people my age have the mistakable impression that the only way we can bring an urban vibe to Santa Monica is by building these sky-high towers in the downtown, but that’s just not so,” Gordon told council members, adding the City of Amsterdam is an urban center that is “culturally rich” and “pedestrian-friendly” yet features buildings averaging between five to six stories high.
Dwight Flowers later countered Santa Monica “is no longer a sleepy beach town” and the focus on height restriction is an “emotional issue.” Instead of debating building height, Flowers suggested the DSP should focus on density, flexibility, and urban design.
Miriam Ginzburg, who has lived here since 1948, spoke with emotion in saying Santa Monica “had warmth and charm at one time” but has become “a very cold and sterile town.”
A candidate in last year’s city council race, John C. Smith said there was nothing wrong with the 84-foot restriction in the first place, so why change anything now.
“Our current limit of 84 feet has served us well for 30 years and it’s helped us, already, to become a vibrant, strong, economically healthy city,” Smith told council members. “It’s working. Why would we want to change it?”
A representative from the Wyndham, Deborah Feldman, said she hoped the hotel’s proposal to upgrade its downtown property would be “judged on its merits” and the community benefits it plans to provide.
Former Planning Commissioner Eric Parlee reminded the council they were not making any formal decisions on Aug. 13 but instead “establish the basis of parameters” for the DSP.
Speaking on behalf of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., Kathleen Rawson said the city’s urban core deserves “world-class architecture.”
She added the Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., board is conducting research to gather as much information about the proposed “opportunity sites” as possible.
“Choices are good. There are several proposals in the pipeline and it makes sense to consider them in the EIR,” Rawson told council members. “We’re simply asking you to explore all options.”
Ron Goldman provided a unique perspective about growth in downtown, saying Santa Monica’s urban core should be metropolitan or beachfront, but it can’t be both.
“Our overall quality of life is what’s iconic about Santa Monica, not its height, not its high-rise buildings,” Goldman told the council.
Plenty more perspectives were shared during the public input portion of the DSP agenda item. There were residents who pleaded with the council to preserve low-rise building in the vein of Amsterdam or Santa Barbara. There were civic and community leaders who touted the process had properly played out and allowed the council to flesh out all possible options and scenarios. Yet others believe Santa Monica needs to keep up with the twenty-first century and figure out how to responsibly grow the downtown to best serve the city’s residents, businesses, and visitors.
After the extensive public testimony portion of the DSP agenda item, council members ultimately decided to restrict studies for the DSP’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to proposed developments of up to 84 feet.
City staff had proposed Council members approve EIR studies for proposed developments reaching the 120 to 135 feet range.