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Santa Monica City Council to Study Building Heights Downtown

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said that the highest proposed building downtown would be "just under 300 feet." The actual proposed height is 320 feet. This article has been updated to reflect this.

July 3, 2013 -- Staff is recommending that the City Council study limiting building heights Downtown to some 12 stories, roughly twice the current limit but far shorter than the height of the three developments that have so far been proposed.

The staff report, released Tuesday, recommends studying a limit of between 120 and 135 feet for buildings on eight “opportunity sites,” where the City could allow development that is taller and more dense than anything that has been built in Santa Monica in more than 30 years.

On Tuesday, the council will vote to set the height and density limits for a State-mandated environmental analysis of the impact of development Downtown, capping nearly two years of public hearings and workshops and months of heated community debates.

“It's a very important meeting,” said Council member Bob Holbrook, who has been on the council since 1990. “I sure hope the public will come.”

Tuesday's discussion will be the first step taken to codify height and density limits in the city’s central commercial district, where three hotel projects ranging from nearly 200 feet in height to 320 feet have been proposed for the opportunity sites.

If the Council accepts the staff recommendation Tuesday to study limits of 135 feet, developers wishing to build outside of that envelop would need to conduct their own Environmental Impact Report (EIR), said Francie Stefan, the City’s Strategic and Transportation Planning Manager.

An EIR, which is mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), can take a year and more than $1 million to complete.

Developers wishing to exceed the limit also would need to apply for a site-specific amendment to the Downtown Specific Plan, which codifies the density and heights of buildings and is expected to go before the council next March.

“You would assume that people would stay within whatever the parameters are,” Stefan said.

Alan Epstein, lead negotiator for MSD Capital, which is overseeing a proposed $255 million overhaul of Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar, wondered about staff’s recommendation.

In its current form, Epstein and his partners' plan would replace two buildings on the four-acre site with three new buildings, including a 21-story tower designed in response to the council’s direction.

“When we brought our initial plan with 135 foot tall buildings to the City Council in April 2012, the Council directed by a 6 to 1 vote that we come back with a plan with more open space and a taller tower that didn't impact views from neighboring buildings to the east,” Epstein said.

“I don't understand how the City staff reconciles today's report with the Council's previous direction,” he said.

While the staff recommendation is to study a 135-foot limit, the report also suggests the possibility of studying the Downtown Specific Plan with the heights and densities of the three projects as they are currently proposed.

Such an analysis would allow “for a full project level analysis of the Ocean Avenue sites as proposed,” staff said, “but does not respond to the community request to consider lower maximum heights.”

Mayor Pam O'Connor emphasized that Tuesday's discussion was meant to explore possibilities, not set anything in stone.

“One needs to keep an open mind,” she said. “That's the whole purpose of the EIR.”

While the EIR, as proposed, would study 135 feet as a maximum height on several sites Downtown, it would also study the possibility of not changing height limits from the current 84 feet.

Still, staff maintains that allowing for more ambitious projects on certain sites Downtown is an opportunity to leverage more benefits for the community from developers, including affordable housing, parking and open space.

In addition, proponents of the three hotel projects have estimated that, combined, they would increase revenue to the City's General Fund by $20 million at a time when Santa Monica is facing a serious budget deficit.

“I'm open to studying a range of options,” O'Connor said. “What comes out of the EIR will inform us.”

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