After half-a-decade of planning and community outreach, city staff revealed the final draft of the Downtown Community Plan Wednesday to a full house at the east wing of the Civic Auditorium.
The 300-page document, which can be downloaded here, lays out the future of Downtown Santa Monica through 2030, drilling down to things as specific as sidewalk widths and building heights and addressing big-picture questions like the future of mobility and public space.
The document definitely promises to improve Santa Monica’s bustling downtown in some real ways. It stakes the future of the area hemmed in by the I-10 freeway in the south, Ocean Avenue to the west, Lincoln Boulevard to the east, and Wilshire Boulevard to the north, on public transportation, safer streets for people on bikes and sidewalks, and generally less car-centric planning.
It also includes the city’s most aggressive affordable housing requirements, including a broader mix of unit sizes and affordability levels.
“At its core, the Downtown Plan is a housing plan,” Principal Planner Peter James told the crowd Wednesday.
City Manager Rick Cole also noted that the draft reflected the fact that there is “continued support in the community for housing” and that there is a “pretty strong consensus” on the need to “house the people who live here so they aren’t commuting in and clogging up our roads.”
Despite the rhetoric, however, the Downtown Community Plan is an aggressively slow-growth document, strictly limiting the overall number of new units that downtown is likely to get over the life of the document, including those affordable units that will be required under the plan’s progressive affordability requirements.
The plan is for a “lower scale downtown,” James told the crowd. “We’re not talking Manhattan here; we’re talking four- to five-stories.” The lower height and density standards prevail through most of the downtown except for a small section around the train station, where James said height can get up to six or seven stories, and three specific sites where staff will entertain the proposals for projects up to 130 feet. However, staff noted that these three taller projects may require a higher threshold for approval, possibly a supermajority of the city council or a city-wide public vote.
Underpinning the plan is staff’s assumption that the downtown will only see upwards of 2,500 new units added over the lifetime of the plan.
One resident asked staff, given the regional housing shortage that is driving up the cost of housing in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, why staff settled on such a low number.
Staff’s answer was that it was simply based on calculations related to demand, the number of parcels likely to turn over, and other factors.
The fact remains that the Downtown Community Plan is simply a reflection of Santa Monica’s long-standing aggressively slow-growth planning policies. The Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) of Santa Monica’s general plan, which was adopted unanimously in 2010, actually estimates that only about 5,000 new units will be added by 2030 throughout the city, downtown included.
The numbers essentially represent a soft limit to the growth possible under the current LUCE because surpassing these numbers would trigger more environmental review before more growth could be permitted.
Officials reiterated Thursday that they are confident the standards in the Downtown Community Plan will allow the city to meet its housing goals. The question of whether or not those goals were adequate to address the growing housing shortage was not addressed.
The 5,000 units over the life of the LUCE averages out to about 250 units a year, slightly higher than Santa Monica’s “fair share” minimum of new housing growth, as determined by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which averages out to about 210 new units a year through 2021 when it that “fair share” will be recalculated.
However, the question of whether or not Santa Monica will meet its minimum fair share of new housing growth is complicated by the fact that the City Council narrowly voted in 2015 to make housing growth on the commercial boulevards outside of the downtown more difficult, effectively disincentivizing growth there.
With the onus of new housing growth resting squarely on the downtown, it remains to be seen if the new restrictive standards in the Downtown Community Plan will actually accommodate the city’s minimum housing needs.
That doesn’t even begin to address whether the 210-unit “fair share” minimum is anywhere near a realistic estimate of what the city would need to allow to be built in order to create significant amounts of affordable housing and enough market-rate housing to slow the astronomical yearly increases in rents.
The new standards certainly are dramatically more restrictive than the plans that governed the downtown area in the 1990s, when the city made a concerted effort to encourage housing growth in the downtown and much more of the downtown’s peak height limit was 84 feet.
In a short period of time, the number of new apartments doubled as the planning guidelines allowed four- to five-story apartment buildings to be built simply with administrative approval, meaning it didn’t have to wend its way through the lengthy (and expensive) Planning Commission and City Council hearings. The generous density bonuses available to housing projects was another factor in the 1990s that made it clear that the city was much more serious about creating new housing then than is currently suggested in the most recent iteration of the Downtown Community Plan.
Still, not everyone in the audience was satisfied with just how slow-growth this document was. Tricia Crane, one of the leaders of Residocracy and a co-author of the draconian Measure LV which failed by 11 percentage points at the ballot box last November, demanded to know why the plan didn’t allow for more public input on proposed projects. She meant that the city is incentivizing relatively small projects that could be approved simply as a “Development Review Permit” (DRP) at the Planning Commission instead of going all the way to the City Council. Unlike Development Agreements (DAs), which require Council approval, DRPs are not legislative acts and therefore not subject to voter referendum. Crane protested that the new lower development standards would mean most projects proposed downtown wouldn’t be subject to referenda, like the Bergamot Transit Village project was.
The Santa Monica Daily Press, however, noted that Armen Melkonians, founder of Residocracy and the other co-author of Measure LV, was happy with the Downtown Community Plan. Melkonians told the Daily Press that he was “pleasantly surprised” and that he wanted to make sure the plan wasn’t “upsized” again as it wends its way to the City Council for final approval.
Though it is the final draft, it still has months of public review to undergo — at the Planning Commission and City Council — before it officially becomes policy.
“Public Hearing will open on April 26 and remain open until the Planning Commission’s anticipated vote on May 31,” according to a handout passed out at Wednesday’s unveiling. A schedule for public hearings will be available at downtownsmplan.org. The first meeting, at City Hall, is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, April 26 at 6 p.m. It will be an overview of the final draft of the DCP as well as its environmental impact report.
On May 10, same time and place, a meeting is tentatively scheduled to be held on Arts/Culture, open space, historic preservation, and housing strategy in the plan.