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Santa Monica General Plan Anticipates SB 375

With the implementation of SB 375 still to come, cities across California will be challenged to revamp their general plans to meet goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled and promoting more compact development. In the race to write the perfect plan, the City of Santa Monica has, according to some, taken an early lead with the approval in July of a new land use and circulation element (LUCE).

A combination of a longstanding environmental ethic, a demanding citizenry, and good timing has resulted in Santa Monica's new land use and circulation element, which was approved, along with its EIR, by the city council last month. The plan is intended to take the already vibrant mini-city of 90,000 and give it a few nips and tucks that will create new clusters and, backers hope, alleviate the city's notorious traffic.

The result, according to the LUCE's policy statements, will be a slightly more dense but far more sustainable place that balances urbanism against the city's more mellow past.

"We're transitioning from � and have been transitioning informally �from a beachside cottage community to a vital, active, sustainable urban community," said Santa Monica Planning Commissioner Hank Koning.

The LUCE had last been updated in 1984.

Studies and planning for the LUCE commenced even before the passage of SB 375 but have since developed with its principals in mind. Even before it was approved by the City Council in July, the plan had already received awards from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Southern California Association of Governments. Last month it received the award for "Outstanding Comprehensive Planning Award, Small Jurisdiction" from the California Chapter of the APA.

To some, as Santa Monica goes, so may go the state.

"I can't imagine why this wouldn't be an SB 375 poster child," said Walker Wells, director of Green Urbanism Programs at Santa Monica-based environmental group Global Green USA. Every chapter of the LUCE document incorporates green components. This, said Wells, is a profound deviation from how general plans often address climate change.

"Otherwise it ends up in the extra chapter that just gets put on for lip service," said Wells.

Santa Monica has long had an outspoken environmental community, and its Sustainable Santa Monica plan has promoted environmental stewardship and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. The LUCE, however, codifies this ethos in the general plan. It includes explicit environmental goals such as the generation of zero net new trips by 2025 � a goal that has obvious implications for other cities attempting to comply with SB 375.

"They created a bold policy statement of no net new trips," said Yara Fisher, senior planner at AECOM and Cal APA jury member. "That's beyond anything that you're seeing anywhere else�.that was just really incredible for most of us on the jury."

Santa Monica planners estimate that by 2030 the city could be emitting as few as 760,000 annual metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to nearly 950,000 today. If the 2030 target is reached, it would beat the state's AB 32 target by over 150,000 annual tons. It would even beat the goals of the city's existing Sustainable City Plan, adopted in 1994.

"They did what you're supposed to do in this day and age when you're�trying to implement sustainability," said Walker Wells,  "They established metrics for themselves. They've moved from just using rhetoric � a �balanced community,' a �livable place,' a �community with for opportunities for all' � and they asked, what are we really after?

"No net new trips. They threw down the gauntlet and said this is what we're after."

In addition to promoting density in key locations, the LUCE includes explicit goals regarding bicycling, walking, and even carpooling. Koning said that new development that adheres to the LUCE will not necessarily create a revolution in the way that commuters get to Santa Monica and the way that Santa Monicans get around their own city. He said, though, that incremental changes will be enough to keep traffic at bay.

"We're not asking everybody to ride a bike," said Koning. "If 1 percent of the community rode a bike instead of driving and another one percent walked and another 1 percent took the bus, then that�makes a difference."

If the LUCE works as intended, it will be no small feat. In addition to having prime beachfront property, Santa Monica is also one of the biggest employment centers in the Los Angeles. Its location on the geographic edge of the county means that commuters come from all directions and pool into the city's downtown and a handful of other commercial districts.

The LUCE addresses this by taking advantage of possibly the biggest gift that any city could receive: Phase II of the Expo light rail line, which will create a seamless connection from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. Originally approved in 2002 by Los Angeles Metro, Phase I is under construction and Phase II has been funded and slated for completion in 2015. 

 The Expo Line's three station stops in Santa Monica � including one at Pico and 17th St. that city officials fought for � provide the basis for the lion's share of the LUCE's densification efforts.

"The real issue was to create corridors and have current and future jobs all right on the light rail corridor," said Santa Monica Planning Director Eileen Fogarty. "As you go toward downtown you have a tremendous amount of housing on that corridor."

Otherwise, the LUCE prescribes small tweaks in land use patterns that, planners hope, will make an enormous overall difference in the city. Of paramount concern was the impact of any changes on the city's residential neighborhoods. Santa Monica has an outspoken no-growth contingent that, in 2008, went so far as to place an initiative on the ballot that would have essentially frozen much commercial development in the city.

Fogarty said that in order to ensure that future development is appropriate, developers would have to provide community benefits according to guidelines that call for developers to provide specific amounts of public benefits in accord with the amount of square footage that they wish to build.

Though Koning said he supports the LUCE, he also said that some developers and architects felt that restrictions might be strong enough to limit its overall effectiveness.

"A design code can always be more restrictive but it never can be less restrictive," said Koning. "The idea of the plan is to have walkable streets and complete communities�[but] if it's overly onerous, then developers won't build."

One of the strongest gestures towards the city's anti-growth contingent was a firm cap on building heights at 35 feet, thus encouraging medium-density development throughout the key corridors rather than high-density development that could overshadow neighborhoods. Additionally, the LUCE provides disincentives for converting existing buildings and it promotes commercial activities that serve local neighborhoods rather than customers from the broader region.

Rather than fight against outspoken residents, the LUCE process embraced them and made an effort to include as many of the city's voices as possible. Outreach took place on what some consider an unprecedented scale.

"Another thing [the CalAPA jury] looked at was the public participation program and how different voices were brought into the planning process," said Fisher. "It was clear that they had done so much outreach in so many different ways."

Fisher cited innovative outreach methods such as attending farmer's markets and convening over 60 citizens' groups.

This outreach, however, has been criticized by some as an inordinately lengthy process that has resulted in a plan whose content � process notwithstanding � would have been the same if the plan had been approved years ago. In total, the LUCE process has taken six years.

With the LUCE's passage, Fogarty said that the city will not be waiting to implement it.

"To implement this we're looking at an interim control ordinance and then a comprehensive zoning ordinance and then we will be systematically doing area plans and specific plans," said Fogarty. "We're not just waiting several years until there's a final zoning ordinance."

Contacts & Resources:

SCAG Compass Blueprint Awards 2010

Santa Monica Land Use and Circulation Element Official Website 

Yara Fisher, Senior Planner, AECOM 619.233.1454 

Eileen Fogarty, Planning Director, City of Santa Monica, (310) 458-8341

 Hank Koning, Santa Monica Planning Commissioner; Principal, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, (310) 826-6131

Walker Wells, Global Green USA (310) 581-2700

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