City planners in Santa Monica are laying out a vision for how Downtown will look in the next 20 years, with rules for how tall buildings can be and how much housing will be built.
Six years in the making, the Downtown Community Plan was released this week. Some parts are pretty progressive—it prioritizes pedestrians and public transit and expands affordable housing requirements, for example. But the consensus is that it caters to slow-growthers, residents who aren’t totally opposed to development but who are fighting to keep the city from growing too much.
“We’re talking about a lower scale downtown. We’re not talking about Manhattan here. We’re talking about 4 or 5 stories,” the plan’s principal author, Peter James, told the Santa Monica Daily Press.
The plan is in the final stretch—but it’s not a done-deal. The City Council still needs to approve it, and before that happens, it will be vetted by the planning commission in six public meetings.
The document is robust. We picked out five of the most compelling elements and highlighted them below. To read the full plan, go here.
The plan projects that less than 20 percent of Downtown’s property area will change. That’s because the area is already largely built-out. Sites that are likely to change, according to the plan, include small, “unassuming one-story” buildings and surface parking lots. The buildings that replace them will be required to mix residential and commercial and include, “affordable housing ... new cultural and public open space amenities ... (and) funding for parks and transportation improvements.”
2. Building heights
The maximum height for buildings would be 84 feet (and actually, in some areas, the maximum will be much shorter—32 feet). The plan breaks up Downtown into seven different districts, each with their own land use regulations. The tallest buildings would go up in the “Transit Adjacent” district, which hugs the Expo Line.
There are three exceptions: the proposed Frank Gehry-designed hotel and the planned expansion and makeover of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, both on Ocean Avenue, and city property at Fourth and Arizona, where it intends to build a multi-use complex designed by architect Rem Koolhaas. The trio of sites have been classified as “established large sites,” where buildings could reach heights of 130 feet—but only with a “supermajority of City Council or voter approval.”
That’s not very tall. For comparison, the iconic clock tower in Santa Monica is 172 feet.
But Santa Monica buildings have traditionally been more low-slung, and the beachside city is home to a vocal contingent of slow-growthers who are trying to preserve the town’s old character. In creating the community plan, city staffers compromised.
Indeed, one of the leaders of Measure LV—a failed effort to curb development across Santa Monica—told the Santa Monica Daily Press, he was “pleasantly surprised” by the plan.
“I thought that—for the first time in a long time—it appeared that there was resident input into the plan,” Armen Melkonians told the newspaper. “We want to play a role and make sure it doesn’t get upsized again at the Council.”
All this talk about building heights leads to arguably the most important component of the plan: housing. (In an area that’s almost totally built-out, it’s difficult to build enough housing to meet demand without building taller).
City officials say the plan paves the way for the construction of 2,500 housing units over the next two decades, according to the Santa Monica Lookout.
Jason Islas, who runs the blog Santa Monica Next, which advocates for more housing, called that projection “unambitious.”
“Given the severity of the housing crisis, we should be trying to incentivize significantly more,” he told Curbed LA. On his website, he wrote that city officials “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.”
“In Downtown, where rents average $2,700-$3,300 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, over half of households spend at least one-third of their income on housing costs, with many spending upwards of half their income on housing alone,” the plan says.
Santa Monica already requires developers to earmark a certain percentage of new units for low-income tenants. Under the plan, those requirements would expand to include middle-income families. So, for example, a family of three earning less than $104,976 would have their rent for a two-bedroom unit capped at $2,624.
It would also mandate developers accommodate families by building more two-bedroom and even some three-bedroom units.
The requirements would vary based on how big a building is. In buildings between 50- and 60-feet-tall, no more than 15 percent of units could be studios, and at least 20 percent would have be two-bedrooms. Plus, developers would have to set aside 20 percent of the units for a mix of low- and moderate-income residents:
The plan touches on more than buildings. There are also transportation goals, and the priority is pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit.
For example, the plan says four major streets—Wilshire and Lincoln boulevards, Ocean Avenue, and Fourth Street—are ripe for pedestrian-friendly makeovers. Upgrades would include widening sidewalks, planting more trees, converting crosswalks to “scrambles,” installing outdoor furniture and public art, and adding buffered bike lanes.