Santa Monica is considering a new approach to slow growth that would put a ceiling on the amount of commercial construction permitted annually and then allow officials to choose projects deemed "desirable" based on a ranking system.
The program, which would dramatically alter the way development happens in Santa Monica, is the pet proposal of new Mayor Dennis Zane. It is the latest effort to rein in what many see as runaway growth on the Westside.
Zane first presented the idea--called the Commercial Allotment Program (CAP)--last April. It would rank proposed projects according to how they meet various criteria, such as impact on the environment, architectural design and whether the project provides a service to the community.
The program has since been refined by the city's planning staff, and a 33-page report is expected to go before the City Council next month. If the council approves the report, a task force will be formed to flesh out details.
New in County
Should Zane persuade the rest of the council to go along with the program, it would be the first sure indication that Santa Monica's government is taking a harder stand on development after municipal elections last November in which Zane and other slow-growth liberals gained a majority on the council.
Similar programs have been tried in San Francisco, Ventura and in other cities but apparently not in Los Angeles County, according to Santa Monica's planning director, Paul Berlant. Most of the others, however, have dealt primarily with residential development.
The Santa Monica proposal is already making developers and even some officials nervous. They fear a rating system would make the approval process for projects too subjective.
"There is concern that for any project now, you'll have to come in and talk to Dennis (Zane) and see what he wants," said Tom Larmore, a real estate attorney who represented a developer in one of the largest projects in the city's recent history.
"Everything becomes a negotiation, as though the city owns the land."
Critics also argue that by limiting development to a handful of projects, the highly competitive approval process could become corrupt and dominated by intense lobbying by influence-peddling developers and their attorneys.
And critics point out that the city last year adopted a comprehensive zoning code that reduced the amount of permissible development by about 30%, and that there hasn't been enough time yet to see how that downzoning works.
But Zane said the program he is proposing goes beyond zoning restrictions and allows the city to have more say over what kind of projects are approved, as well as the number of projects and overall pace of development.
Flurry of Projects
The program is necessary, Zane said, because of a flurry of projects approved in Santa Monica over the last few years, including three complexes in excess of a million square feet each. He also said that establishing a clear and objective set of criteria for the rating system will safeguard against possible corruption.
The program would set an annual limit of 200,000 square feet of commercial development in the city. All office, hotel, retail, hospital and industrial projects on privately owned land, except for small projects, would be included in the program.
Among several exceptions are publicly sponsored projects, such as redevelopment of the downtown Third Street Mall area, restoration of the Santa Monica Pier and the controversial proposed construction of a 1.4-million-square-foot office complex at the Santa Monica Airport. Development on land belonging to the local school district also would be exempt.
Applications for commercial development projects would be accepted each year during a set period and then ranked according to the city's rating system. The City Council would evaluate the projects and how they have been ranked before choosing which projects to approve.
The city's planning staff is recommending that a task force be set up to decide details of the program, including the criteria that should be used in the rating system.
Zane has suggested that the criteria include architectural design, landscaping, whether the project meets a community's needs and how well the project protects the environment and provides for traffic.
He said the rating system could be adjusted to reflect what different communities want or to coax development into certain areas while steering it away from others.
If a community wants more retail outlets, for example, more points would be given for retail projects for that area. Or if an area seems to be "over-gentrified," such as Montana Avenue, more points would be given for projects that preserve old-style neighborhood services, Zane said.
"This will not only address the problems of development, such as traffic, but helps assure good-quality development," Zane said. "The developer community is quick and agile, and when it becomes clear what the policies of the city are, they'll deliver it."