Planning Commission Discusses the Gateway

Planning Commission in actionOn Feb. 9th the Planning Commission met to continue an overlay zone discussion that was continued from January’s meeting. The overlay zone, if enacted, would be a newly-formulated land use designation specifically tailored to the city’s western gateway, where Santa Monica Boulevard enters the city and where a proposed project for the Starbucks corner (at Wilshire) is currently under review. This is no academic discussion, however. How the Commission formulates this policy will have a lasting impact on the future transportation uses of the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor.

Western Gateway aerial view
Western Gateway aerial view

We’ve been following the overlay zone discussion since last April, when a City Council liaison committee comprised of two members from the City Council, two Planning Commissioners and city staff met to mull over options for ‘Gateway.’

The area is important to the city because it’s a highly-visible point-of-entry to the city, and future development should be “iconic” in design – especially at the crucial Wilshire & Santa Monica North intersection. Today there is a Starbucks on the southwestern corner; to the east is Budget Rent-a-Car. The city considers this under-utilized land.

This area is important to transportation advocates because there is the potential to realize on-boulevard bi-directional bike lanes on the corridor that would connect Century City and West Hollywood. Today, Santa Monica Boulevard North is a missing link in what is becoming a regional network. With discussion of a zoning overlay, and with it new standards for development along the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard North, advocates want to ensure that what is permitted will not preclude future opportunities for the lanes when the boulevard is reconstructed (completion expected in 2014).

In April’s liaison meeting we heard from both City Councilmembers and applicants. Selected comments with relevance to transportation and open-space:

  • Parcel owners/representatives agreed that an overlay zone offers flexibility and conceded the possibility of “a required dedication on the north side” of their property for uses including “setbacks and open space” and boulevard widening in trade for a higher-FAR (i.e., greater project height).
  • A ‘greenbelt’ concept could be an additional buffer between residential and commercial activities (on Santa Monica North east of Wilshire BL.).
  • There was also support from applicants for a contribution to open space. A ‘greenbelt’ opportunity was mentioned, and Councilmember Bosse, when asked about her “vision” behind the Gateway area, replied, “It is a gateway and it should have a greenbelt.”

The 5-member Planning Commission, a policy-making body, has considered the City Council’s objectives as stated therein, has formulated a list of ‘objectives’ (see the staff report) and has held several public hearings to explore the overlay zone concept for parcels in the T-1 (transportation) zone.

In this meeting, the Commissioners considered the current zoning and opportunities to apply an ‘overlay’ zone that would establish within the zone: 1) a maximum height for future projects; 2) identify a setback* average and minimum along the length of Santa Monica there; allow or proscribe specific commercial or mixed-uses; and, 3) through a development formula, leverage allowable floor area (FAR) to encourage or discourage project particulars in areas such as massing, open space, and parking. In the background was the City Council liaison objectives.

(In short, this broad-ranging policy discussion seeks to balance private interests and public concerns. It’s about respecting the property owner’s rights while reflecting policymakers’ expectations for a quality project. Of course, we want to accommodate public concerns about mobility, as we remind Commissioners. So on one hand, it’s a question of the highest-and-best use of our city land. But more specifically, it’s a question about how with city will encourage growth without too much limiting future opportunities.)

Meeting Outcomes

Parcel 2 aerial thumbnailPrecipitating the overlay discussion is a proposed project for the Starbucks site (9848 Wilshire, aka ‘parcel 2’) and two projects proposed for 9900 & 9817 Wilshire respectively (both tentatively off the table at present). The discussion has been a long time coming: for ten years the city has moved fitfully to permit development here, uncertain how to rezone the T-1 land, and applicants are anxious to develop.

Riding the right-of-way at the Western Gateway
Riding the T-1 zone right-of-way at the Western Gateway

More on the zoning: parcels fronting Santa Monica South (aka ‘little’ SM) are zoned C-3 (commercial) which vests the owners with by-right development rights. Running along the north side of these parcels is a strip of land zoned T-1 (transportation), which is the legacy of the old Pacific Electric trolley system. (Read more.) T-1 zoning prohibits all but transportation uses, hence it is mostly undeveloped today pending re-zoning.

It appears that the Commission is about to formalize a resolution to create that zone and let development proceed. The devil is in the details: height, setbacks, floor-to-area ratio, permitted uses, parking provision, and of course, future transportation uses for the corridor and general project area.

After much debate and hearing from the applicants and a representative (yours truly) from better bike, the Commissioners clarified for a future resolution some particulars:

Height: For parcel #2 (Starbucks site) the Commission would permit in the overlay zone three stories 45’ high as measured from the highest site elevation with a possible 4th story at 60’ high. For parcels #1 and #3, three stories 45’ high as measured from the highest site elevation.

For project neighbors south of the site, including the residential area south of Wilshire, that could mean a 65’ tall building on the parcel #2 site. Since no neighbors turned up for this hearing, nor evidently submitted any letters, the Commission saw no opposition.

Development Intensity: FAR of 2.0 for the current C-3 zoned parcels (as exists today); .5 FAR (low density) for today’s T-1 zone land; but a maximum of 1.75 for a combined T-1/C-3 parcel.

This is the most thorny part of the discussion: Commissioners wanted to discourage development on T-1 land only (hence the low .5 FAR) but to encourage T-1 development when done in conjunction with the C-3 properties that front it. They didn’t want to exceed the C-3 2.0 FAR for the combined project, but went as high as 1.75 to encourage combined-parcel development. The hitch is that an applicant can’t use one small C-3 parcel to anchor a project to develop a much larger T-1 site at the 1.75 FAR. (The T-1 tail wagging the C-3 dog.)

Setbacks along Santa Monica boulevard: 15’ average & 10’ minimum across a project. To put that in context, discussion on setbacks started at 20’ average & 17’ minimum but was whittled down to a 10-foot minimum.

For Commissioners, the larger, combined development, 3-story height, smaller setbacks and even the 5 extra feet in height (measuring from the highest point of the parcel #2) will allow for applicants to enjoy as much flexibility as possible. Aesthetically, there was concern that narrower setbacks and higher FAR (not to mention height) would create a tunnel effect on Santa Monica – a road walled-in by tall structures. Today’s that largely open space because of the current Hilton property and the T-1 land.

Why We Need Be Concerned

For transportation advocates, a minimum setback of 10 feet threatens to choke off future opportunities to put bi-directional bike lanes on the corridor.

All considered, the liberalized height and FAR regulations will have an impact on intensity of use (a larger project means more visitors, etc.) and aesthetics but will be much less important than the 10’ minimum setback from the boulevard. Narrow minimum setbacks on the south side may well preclude bike lanes there.

Problem is that the Hilton project across the street has only 5’ setbacks. That very major project will snug right up to the sidewalk & street to preclude grabbing any land there for a north-side bike lane too. We may be boxed out.

The Commission was well-aware of our concerns. For 18 months we’ve been calling for on-boulevard bi-directional bike lanes to connect Century City to West Hollywood. We’ve spoken at two prior Planning Commission meetings about the overlay zone. And at this hearing we noted that without a designated active-transportation use for the corridor made explicit in the overlay zone objectives, and without sufficient setbacks, we may never have foot and bike traffic on the south side of the corridor.

Planning Commissioner Cole expressed concern that overlay zone setbacks for the Santa Monica Boulevard North (T-1 land) should allow for pedestrian connectivity. Commissioner Rosenstein also expressed concern that we accommodate active mobility on the corridor. But the Commission didn’t have sufficient information to know exactly what setback minimum would need to be to afford room for bike lanes when the boulevard is reconstructed next year (given the north-side setback limitation).

We’ve communicated our concerns in a letter to Transportation and we’ll have to wait to see how the Commission handles this issue in their next meeting on Feb. 22nd (at 1:30 in City Hall).

Now, perhaps the identified setbacks are sufficient. Maybe our concerns are heard and the Commission will take the necessary steps to ensure affordability for bike lanes (and even better a mixed ped & bike land easement or dedication). In the best world, we’d have a firm commitment. But given the city’s interest in permitting the project proposed for the Starbucks corner at Wilshire & Santa Monica, the Commission may forever relegate cyclists to battling motorists on Santa Monica – perhaps the most heavily-traveled stretch of asphalt in the city and soon the city’s iconic western ‘gateway.’

*A setback in planning parlance is simply the required separation between a lot line and a structure. It’s a buffer that sits on private land but serves a public purpose. Setbacks are written into the code and intended to give shape to development, not to dictate it. Setbacks provide for light and air from the roadway (front yard) and ensure privacy (sideyards) and even allow for visual relief (stepped setbacks). As with this overlay zone, the setback can leaven the apparent intensity of development with open space, or to encourage a plaza or other signature project amenity. A land dedication, by contrast, might be requested for some purpose other than development.