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Santa Monica is for everyone. Not only is our city for those who had the good fortune to arrive here many years ago, but it also is for those who have come here more recently. It is for those who live here but are barely able to afford to do so; it for those who grew up here but can not afford to live here any more. Santa Monica also is for those who are currently living in our downtown facing potential rent increases because we have failed to provide for and encourage adequate housing growth. Our city is for those who work here and would like to live here but can’t afford it, who send their children to school here, and for those yet to be born here or come here to work, to live, and to share in our beautiful coast.
Our downtown offers a real opportunity to lead the region in progressive planning, to tackle locally the growing economic disparities in our region by providing new homes, affordable at all levels, in numbers that reflect the urgency of our current housing crisis, to allow access to more jobs that pay living wages and provide strong benefits, and to continue to combat the root causes of climate change and traffic.
The Downtown Community Plan (DCP) should start by identifying the important background facts and challenges that face the region and our city; the plan should emerge from a discussion of underlying factual realities, present options, and project their consequences. Instead, in its current form, the plan appears to merge a particular read of the current local political tea leaves with outmoded planning principles.
Our DCP should emphasize access to affordable homes, services, and jobs that pay living wages. The plan must offer strong incentives for property owners to take a dynamic and inventive approach to open space, opening our city streets, alleyways, and plazas to people and activity. The plan needs also to emphasize the role a dense, transit-rich environment plays in connecting people to one another, reducing traffic, creating a more just and vibrant economy, and overall improving sustainability in the broadest sense of the word. In other words, it should apply our community’s values about diversity and sustainability to the underlying facts our city faces.
Needless to say, Santa Monica Forward has deep reservations about the draft of the Downtown Community Plan that is currently proposed.
As proposed, the plan places too much emphasis on physical planning and restricting physical development and barely any emphasis on the impact it has on social, economic, equity, or sustainability planning objectives.
The plan severely restricts our ability to grow responsibly and to respond with flexibility to both foreseeable and unforeseen needs and challenges that may arise over the next 15 years, such as climate change, changes in transportation technology, and shifts in the economy.
Not only is this aggressively slow-growth plan a sharp retreat from the promise of the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) that the community unanimously embraced after years of outreach and negotiation, it is also a woefully inadequate response to the two crises facing our community now and in the future: growing economic disparity and climate change.
The DCP’s proposed design standards, restrictive building envelopes, and dramatically increased fees on new construction actively discourage much-needed, transit-adjacent affordable housing and economic opportunities that allow people to improve their circumstances, including obtaining union jobs. It also threatens to push development pressures into the neighborhoods, where most of our city’s affordable, rent-controlled housing is located. This implicitly undermines the agreement our community made to protect this housing by approving the strategies outlined in the LUCE. Furthermore, given the City Council’s decision two years ago to reduce the ability for housing to be built along our commercial boulevards (also a retreat from the vision of the LUCE), the downtown is our last opportunity to retain the remaining commitments of the LUCE.
In the LUCE, we estimated that from 2010 to 2030, we would add 4,955 net new units to our city. Since the LUCE passed, we have approved 1,271. With the recent decision to reduce our ability to allow housing to be built on the boulevards and with the collapse of the Bergamot Area Plan, we should expect that and plan for the balance of the 4,955 units we hope to get by 2030 will be in our Downtown.
Santa Monica Forward believes that to live up to our city’s potential and its commitments, the Downtown Community Plan must be more about people and less about building heights. It must be about what the urban environment does to improve our collective and individual wellbeing.
To advance fact-based decision-making and ensure that the DCP framework remains capable of responding to emergent community needs, we believe the plan should more explicitly leverage the ongoing use of citywide and neighborhood-level data sources, such as those already available through the Santa Monica Wellbeing Project and the Sustainability Report Card, to advance a diverse and thriving – and environmentally sustainable – multigenerational downtown community.
The plan is also overly reliant on extraction of fees, rather than offering incentives, to create the amenities our downtown will need to continue to grow as a neighborhood. Our approach to open space in Downtown Santa Monica needs to be dynamic and inventive. Open space downtown needs to interweave with and complement the reality of the urban environment, not simply be passive green space. These spaces need to be alive with activity, programmed, and inviting to people and therefore need to be integrated with buildings and their uses.
The plan should require a Planning Commission Development Review Permit (DRP) for housing projects up to 100,000 square feet and 90 feet tall in the “Transit Adjacent” zone to encourage much-needed housing within a short walking distance of the Expo line.
Heights in the “Neighborhood Village” zone should be increased to 84 feet (the height limit from a previous draft) and should also require a DRP, not a DA, for approval. Both the reduction in height and the continuation of DAs as the preferred method for obtaining approval represent a very different message than the statement from the Planning Division that the DCP “is a housing plan.”
Development Agreements should be reserved only for the three so-called large sites. Voter approval requirements or a supermajority Council vote threshold for large projects set a regressive precedent and should not be included. Projects that seek approval at these large sites, which should allow for proposals up to 130 feet, will appropriately be required to provide much-needed housing and quality, well-paying jobs and will undergo a robust public process before ultimately being vetted and voted on by the Council. Neither voter approval nor a supermajority Council vote is required for equally important decisions such as budget approvals; the DCP should not establish these types of barriers to new jobs and affordable housing either.
We must ask ourselves whether we believe the future of Santa Monica should be an open one in which we invite people of all walks of life to participate and strengthen our community and in turn be strengthened, or a closed one where we turn our backs on the future.
We hope that at a time when countries throughout the world are struggling with this same question, we hold fast to our progressive values and lead by example, especially in documents like the Downtown Community Plan, where we can express our values in meaningful ways that have real impacts on people’s lives.
Juan Matute, Judy Abdo, Shawn Landres, Tim Harter, Craig Hamilton, Cyntiha Rose, Debbie Mulvaney, Zachary Gaidzik, Carl Hansen, Abby Arnold, Scott Schonfeld, Jeremy Stutes, and Jason Islas for Santa Monica Forward