The Santa Monica City Council approved the controversial Bergamot Transit Village project last night with a four-three vote. This vote, with a few small amendments to the development agreement, will allow the developer Hines to move forward with plans for its 765,095 square-foot project located at 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard.
Council members heard approximately four hours of public comment on this development last week, the majority of which was in opposition to the project. Dozens of protestors outside City Hall last night urged council members to vote no, and there were even a few outbursts of protest, laughing and clapping, during the actual meeting. Still, after primarily discussing issues like the mix of office space and residential space and traffic and the amount of affordable housing contained in the project, four council members, including Mayor Pam O’Connor, Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis, and Robert Holbrook, all voted to approve.
Ultimately, the vote seemed to come down to the ideas city council originally had for the site when they approved the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) in 2010 and the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP) in 2013. Both documents envisioned this as place for mixed-use, transit-oriented development (TOD) and creating an active and thriving complement to the adjacent future Bergamot Expo Line Station. In both it is a site that promotes activity and connectivity as well as pedestrian and bicycle safety, with more streets and wider sidewalks, retail, restaurants, housing, creative office space, and open space. The staff report felt the plan for the Bergamot Transit Village was in line with these visions, despite slight differences in office/residential mix and affordable housing requirements.
Council members feared, after spending seven years in negotiations on the specifics of the project, that if they didn’t approve or if they requested significant changes, Hines would decide to just lease out a slightly upgraded version of the building already on the site. This would place approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space on the site and leave a few hundred surface parking spots. The developer would still be required to finish the sidewalk on Olympic Blvd. and build a passageway through the site that may or may not be publically accessible. This scenario would not transform the area as envisioned, nor provide traffic mitigation and most of the community benefits outlined in the development agreement and discussed in previous articles published on Santa Monica Next.
“I know traffic is a huge issue,” Davis said. “Everyone sits in traffic and everyone hates it. The fact of matter is that at some point, we’re going to have to make a decision whether we base our land use decision on how we move cars or how we move people? If we’re going to make land use decisions based on how fast cars move, we really need to rethink some of the decisions made in the LUCE. We need to build wider roads and we need to build no development.”
As approved last night, the project is a 765,095 square-foot, mixed-use project that is 45 percent residential space and 55 percent creative office space. It will include five primary buildings of between five and seven stories each with community-serving retail and restaurants, livable streets, parks, and three centers of community activity between the buildings, as well as a subterranean parking garage with 1,927 spaces.
One of the changes made to the plan last night was to change the distribution of affordable housing. The original plan called for 20 percent, or 90 affordable units priced between 30 and 180 percent of area median income (AMI). Of these, 24 are reserved for extremely low income. Council members erased the 180 percent category and moved these units to 150 percent, and moved the 150 percent units to the 130 percent category. Several members of the council, including Tony Vazquez and Kevin McKeown, who voted “no” on the project, expressed concern that the amount of affordable housing included in the plan wasn’t enough. The LUCE and BAP set the target at 30 percent.
Other changes included marketing the units not just to area workers, but to first responders, doctors, nurses, and teachers as well; linking the creative office housing fee to inflation; changing energy life cycle feasibility language; and requiring a 2.0 average vehicle ridership for the first creative office building prior to reaching the trip cap.
Several motions appeared on the table to reduce office space and increase residential space before the council approved the existing mix. The LUCE and BAP set a goal of 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. McKeown motioned that the council vote on a version of the project that would convert all creative office space above the ground floor (essentially all office space) into residential space. The motioned ultimately failed, four to three.
“We are already a very jobs rich community,” McKeown said. “Building large amounts of new office space exacerbates the imbalance we already have. It’s actually 1.58 jobs per resident. We’re attracting people from all over Southern California to come work here in Santa Monica, which means that even after the train comes, most of them will be driving here. That increases traffic for us and decreases quality of life for us. We know that office space generates, on average, about three times as much traffic as the same square footage of residential. We could solve the traffic problem in part by shifting toward more residential.”
O’Connor reminded council members that traffic will get worse either way because populations in Santa Monica, and especially the surrounding Los Angeles city and counties are steadily rising. Santa Monica traffic issues are part of the larger region; city and developer strategies can help over the long term by adding to a system working toward the city’s goal of no net new trips by 2030.
“What is the appropriate, future-conscious TOD in a crucial vehicular traffic corridor in an existing city where this is an important route into and out of town for residents?” McKeown said. “It’s clear that making traffic worse, and it will be worse by 2030, is not acceptable to our community. People do not want us to make the traffic worse.”
Commercial spaces do generate more trips than the same square footage of residential space. McKeown continued to questioned why council members were talking about a need for office space when, for years, there has been an “unfillable housing demand.” Director of Planning and Community Development David Martin said the vacancy rate for Santa Monica office space is the lowest in the region. However, the city has seen companies leave the city because there is not enough office space. Riot Games, for example, decided to move their offices from Santa Monica just across the border to a large, new office development called Element LA on Olympic. Of pending development projects, no others include office space, and some projects in Downtown Santa Monica propose to remove office space to make way for new hotels.
Davis reminded the council that they had already discussed the appropriate residential-mix in the area when approving the LUCE and BAP. At the time, she said, experts advised the council that a mix of 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial would maximize the use of the property. Additionally, she was hesitant to move toward a 100 percent residential development because of the activity she wanted to see in the plaza designed in the plans across the street from the future.
“Having some commercial enlivens the space during the day. Residents have to go to work during the day,” Davis said. “… Losing commercial has an important effect on the plaza—in order for the plaza to be usable; it needs to be insulated from residential. Otherwise it would have constrained uses for the peace and quiet of residents; no amplified music, no street festivals, outdoor movies, or farmer’s markets.”
Davis motioned to reduce the square footage of creative office space in the project by 42,217 to bring the mix to 50 percent residential and 50 percent office, but ultimately decided to withdraw this piece in the interest of saving staff and the developer months spent amending the development agreement. Councilmember Ted Winterer, who also voted “no,” motioned earlier to replace one of the creative office buildings with residential (an approximately 70-30 mix of residential and office), but this failed, five to two.
Just before the vote, Vazquez asked about the potential for a referendum. With enough signatures, 6,000, a referendum could put the issue on the ballot and overturn the council’s decision. After the vote, there was talk on the Santa Monica Government, Politics, Policies and People Facebook group about organizing a referendum. There is already a petition to oppose the development on the new website Residocracy.org, which could help with the referendum petition process.