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Slow-Growth Activists Question City Manager’s Claim of Consensus on Santa Monica Downtown Plan


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

Update: City Manager Rick Cole's blog referred to in this article has been updated, deleting his assertion that a "consensus" had been built regarding the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) and that the DCP had been a "tremendous success."  Wording has been added explaining the draft plan must still go to the Planning Commission and City Council this spring. In addition,  the email response explaining the comments in the original blog was intended to come from Constance Farrell, the City's Public Information Coordinator, not from Cole, Farrell said.

January 4, 2017 -- A leading slow-growth group is questioning a published claim by Santa Monica’s city manager that a consensus finally has been built over a highly divisive plan that will guide development downtown.

In a December 30 post on his “The Long View” blog highlighting key, and mostly uncontroversial, events that took place in Santa Monica in 2016, City Manager Rick Cole called the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) a “tremendous success."

"In building a consensus around a few sensible ideas, the Downtown Community Plan has been a tremendous success," Cole wrote, lauding its "common sense" approach to "strengthening the ‘hometown’ downtown."

More than six years in the making, the DCP -- which would allow more, and potentially taller, development in the central core -- has pitted Santa Monica’s slow-growth movement against developers and, lately, against a union representing hotel workers that backs plans for hotel expansion ("Santa Monica Hotel Union Urges Taller Buildings After Victory," November 18, 2016).

Quick to react to Cole's comments were slow growth activists, who oppose some of the major proposals in the planning pipeline that would add a total of some 3.2 million square-feet of development downtown ("Nearly 3.8 Million Square Feet Await Approval in Santa Monica's Jammed Development Pipeline," November 3, 2016).

“City Hall cannot credibly claim that there is a consensus (defined as a “general agreement” and “harmony”) in support of the draft DCP or that it is a ‘tremendous success,’" Diana Gordon, who heads the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), wrote in an email to The Lookout.

“In fact, there is widespread and growing opposition to the fast-track overdevelopment and over-sized projects such as at 4th and Arizona that are integral to the Plan,” she said, referring to a 420,000-square-foot development proposed for City owned land downtown.

Gordon noted that Measure LV, a slow-growth ballot initiative that was defeated in the November election, garnered nearly 20,000 votes, or 44.70 percent,despite being badly outspent by developers ("Backers of Defeated Santa Monica Slow-Growth Measure Blame Development Money, Claim Success," November 10, 2016).

The initiative would have required that the voters -- not the City Council -- approve most buildings taller than 32 feet.

“Almost 20,000 residents just expressed their total frustration with the City’s planning by voting that almost every new project in the DCP would require voter approval,” Gordon said.

“And you can be sure there are a lot more voters who are not part of a 'consensus,' but weren't ready to go quite that far," she added.

Asked about his characterization of the plan, Constance Farrell, the City's Public Information Coordinator, told the Lookout that "tremendous success" was meant to apply only to the extensive public process, which resulted in more than 1,600 residents weighing in on the plan.

"The outreach for the Downtown Community Plan has been a tremendous success in both quantity and quality," Farrell said in an email Tuesday. "A significant and important dialogue took place and 1,600 people voiced their thoughts on the future of downtown."

Cole said participants found much to agree on.

"The feedback reflected significant unifying principles," Farrell said. "Just a few examples include that public open space is the community’s number one priority for downtown, that maintaining downtown’s character and history is paramount, and that there is support for concentrating height and density around the Expo Line."

Meant to guide development in downtown through 2030, the DCP furthers the City's long-range goal of transforming the central business district into a mixed-use neighborhood with uncongested streets that are friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The plan’s goal is to allow more building without a net increase in new evening rush hour vehicular traffic by persuading downtown residents and employees to switch from cars to alternative transportation, such as the Expo Light Rail line, buses, car-sharing and walking or biking.

But skeptics remain, including some members of the City’s Planning Commission, neighborhood organizations, slow-growth advocates and others.

The public process also has been criticized by UNITE HERE, Local 660, which represents hotel and restaurant workers in the city. Union representatives noted workers -- many of whom donated time to help defeat LV -- had not been contacted during the outreach process ("New Santa Monica Downtown Development Plan Spurs More Worries," November 22, 2016).

Nor was the process conducted bilingually, they said. About 13 percent of the city's population is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census, and many of the hotel and restaurant workers who commute to the City also are Hispanic.

Although an eight-month outreach campaign was launched last year in an effort to reach consensus on the DCP, there are crucial points that remain unresolved, particularly the height limits for new large-scale buildings.

The DCP is being fine-tuned by City planners after two appearances in November and December before the City Planning Commission.

It is expected back again in the next few weeks in hopes of receiving the panel’s recommendation. A final vote by the City Council is due this spring, City officials have said.

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