Three years ago, the City of Santa Monica adopted its updated Downtown Community Plan, laying the groundwork for the addition of roughly 2,500 residential units to the neighborhood.  Now, in an effort to speed the construction of new housing, the City is considering recommendations to streamline the approval process for larger developments.

Under the Downtown Community Plan, new developments are divided into tiers based on height, density, and building form.  Tier 1 projects, which conform to base zoning, are approved through an administrative process.  Larger Tier 2 developments are considered through the development review permit process, which provides for discretionary approvals following a public hearing.  Tier 3 projects, the largest allowable in the Community Plan, are approved through development agreements negotiated applicants and the City of Santa Monica.  These agreements may result in a larger public benefits payment than normally required for Tier 3 projects.

Noting that the development agreement process may be a disincentive for property owners to maximize the buildable potential of their land, a new staff report from the Santa Monica Planning Division recommends reforms to the process.  The report, which is scheduled for consideration at the May 13 meeting of the Santa Monica Planning Commission, recommends that the development review permit process should be extended to include Tier 3 projects greater than 90,000 square feet – the threshold at which currently triggers the development agreement requirement.  The staff report states that the development review permit offers better predictability for project applicants in terms of expected requirements and processing time, likely decreasing overall costs.

This would follow an emergency interim zoning ordinance adopted by the City of Santa Monica in March 2020, which authorized administrative review for 100 percent affordable housing developments and other projects compliant with California's Housing Accountability Act.  Eliminating the development agreement requirement for Tier 3 projects would maximize opportunities for housing production in the Downtown neighborhood, according to the staff report.

Whether or not the Planning Commission votes to adopt a resolution to reform the permitting process for Tier 3 projects, any update to the Downtown Community Plan will require approval from the Santa Monica City Council.

Though the Downtown Community Plan has spurred dozens of new entitlement applications for housing projects – the bulk of which are proposed by developer WS Communities – the real-world results have been less robust.  In March 2019, two years after the Plan's adoption, a City report found that 335 apartments had been proposed under the new development standards.  However, just six percent of those apartments would be subsidized affordable units - far below the 20 percent minimum desired under the plan.