Size matters in Santa Monica*

On Sunday, the L.A. Times reported that mega-rich computer mogul Michael Dell had slimed his way through a Prop 13 loophole to reduce his tax bite on the purchase of Santa Monica's Miramar Hotel. Some people saw the maneuver as unconscionable; some Santa Monicans saw it as leverage.

On Monday night, at the city's "community workshop," residents opposed to certain aspects of the Planning Commission's Downtown Specific Plan turned Dell and the Miramar's proposed 21-story hotel/condo project into the Gordon Gekko of urban development. Upward of 320 people packed the east wing of the Civic Auditorium. Most of them seemed to think development came at the cost of livability, but some copped to the inevitability of growth, including commercial towers as high and goofy as Frank Gehry's imagination can take him.

It was a marathon, five-hour session, but, as usual for these civic meetings, there was food. Santa Monica grapples with development, but it has catering down cold.

The Planning Commission began with a Power Point presentation about FARs (floor area ratios); "opp sites" ("opportunity sites" where developers get more flexibility for height and/or density in exchange for "community benefits," a term as squishy as cold cream); and "wayfinding" (um ... parking signs?) that no one sitting beyond the first couple rows could see.

Not that it mattered. This wasn't a meeting to become informed; this was a meeting to vent. The Planning Commission promised that the plan was a "work-in-progress" and that residents' concerns were welcome. And 66 of them accepted the invitation.

At a cost of "maybe a couple thousand dollars," according to Francie Stefan, manager of strategic and transportation planning, the city hired consultants MIG to summarize comments on a white board and manage the speakers, and you have to wonder why: No time limit was imposed, and although some comments were windy and inarticulate (our democracy guarantees free, not concise, speech) everyone was respectful, if passionate, and no one was interrupted.

Many residents, some of whom spoke in German, British and Aussie accents, said the city had demonstrated a shocking lack of transparency in developing the Specific Plan and accused the Planning Commission of being a tool of carpet-bagging developers; a few stuck up for denser, higher downtown buildings reflecting Santa Monica's evolution from a sleepy seaside enclave to a tourist destination where you should take the bus if you don't like the traffic.

Mindful that some names are incomplete (or flat-out wrong--your correspondent was waaay in the back), here's what some of the neighbors had to say:

  • Re: Michael Dell's Prop 13 escape clause--"When a commercial property owner manipulates the system, it shifts that burden [public infrastructure] to the residents."--Andy Hoyer
  • Re: the flexibility inherent in opp site developments--"Flexibility for developers is like deregulation for bankers."--Zena Josephs
  • "As [former Santa Monica Mayor] Denny Zane once said about the Water Garden, 'Gee it looked smaller on paper.'"--Mary
  • "Frank Gehry will do for Santa Monica what Pepperdine does for Malibu."--Chloe Williams
  • Re: the Gehry hotel project--"Condos dressed up in a hotel outfit."--Elizabeth Vanderburg
  • Mocking the minimalist wave sculpture spanning Wilshire at the city's eastern border--"'Iconic architecture' as a community benefit? Please! You get another 10 stories, we get another 'Gateway.'"--John Murdock, land-use attorney.
  • A paraphrased attempt to analogize overdevelopment--"The bathtub's overflowing and it's damaging the bathroom and the door is closed and there's a dead cat inside."--Some woman with a profound sense of dread
  • Definition of interesting architecture as an opp site community benefit--"Fa├žade-omy."--Some guy with a profound appreciation for the language if not for Frank Gehry
  • "The Miramar [proposed] square footage is larger than the Santa Monica Mall. Is this Miami Beach?"--Patricia Bauer
  • "Two tourists asked me where the beach was. We were standing in the middle of the Third Street Promenade."--Miriam Ginsberg
  • Re: opp sites--"We're selling the sky to luxury box development. ...Should we be selling our skyline and views to the 1%?"--Michael Feinstein, former mayor, Santa Monica
  • "I was recently given a report commissioned by the city and its planning consultant Torti Gallas to provide a third-party real estate market outlook for downtown Santa Monica. ... What is striking ... is that the consultant was directed to assume an unconstrained development environment. The tone throughout ... was how to maximize real estate values with only one mention of residents. That mention was ... how important it was to have local shoppers 'because their presence provides a sense of authenticity that becomes a draw for outside visitors looking to experience the Santa Monica lifestyle.'"--Alin Wall
  • Re: the shortage of affordable housing in Santa Monica, and in support of opp sites--"I live at 'I can't believe it's not Santa Monica' at Pico and Bundy."--Natalya
  • "To the young lady who wants to move here--do you think you can live in the Miramar? There's no room for you."--Laura
  • "This is a serious, professional approach to working out Santa Monica's development challenges. ... We should consider opp sites before we condemn them to death. Their taxes will allow us to have all the other things we want."--David Rogers, architect
  • "Where is the next generation supposed to live? ...This feels more like a lynching. ... I'm confused by the vilification of the term "opp site."--Cynthia Rose
  • "There's a younger crowd moving into the downtown core and they don't own cars. ... Let's kumbaya and get through this."--Bryan Boretta
  • Re: the Miramar opp site community benefit of an observation deck you must pay to visit--"We already have a great observation deck in our city--it's called Palisades Park."--Phil Brock, chairman of the Recreation and Parks Commission
  • "Traffic is a choice we all make."--Valerie Griffin
  • "I was born and raised here, and I can't afford to live here. ... And thanks for the pizza."--India
  • "This is a Jackson Pollock approach to development"--John
  • "My name is Todd, and I'm an alcoholic. Sorry, that's tomorrow night. Apparently tonight it's anger management."--Todd Stevens
  • Perceiving claims, as it approached 11 p.m., that more development reaps community benefits--"I'm really hungry and I'm a Weight Watcher's leader. ...I feel like, 'Oh my god, there were no weapons of mass destruction."--Amy Brunell

Like the waves lapping at Santa Monica Beach, to be continued...

This post was edited to correct the spelling of Gordon Gekko and Jackson Pollock.

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