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Santa Monica is bracing for a growth spurt

For all Santa Monica has changed over the last 30 years — the tech and entertainment offices, the upscale shopping centers — its skyline has remained largely the same: a few aging towers overlooking the city's coastal bluffs.

But that skyline is now poised to be dramatically altered.

One project would bring a 21-story hotel to Ocean Avenue, creating the tallest building in the city. Another hotel designed by famed hometown architect Frank Gehry would add a wavy white tower just steps from the sand. A third hotel complex calls for three towers totaling 170,000 square feet on the southern edge of downtown.

In all, more than 30 projects in the pipeline could add nearly 3 million square feet in new residential, office and retail space. More than 700,000 square feet is proposed in a single project at the city's Bergamot Station Arts Center.

It's a lot of development for any city but particularly for Santa Monica, which has been famously slow-growth.

"This is a critical time," Councilman Kevin McKeown said. "If the wrong decisions are made, we live with the consequences for a generation or more."

The unprecedented number of projects has surfaced since a major revamp of the city's land-use plan three years ago. The new plan identifies several sites for more intense development, including some near the coming Expo Line rail extension. The city is also in the midst of updating zoning in several areas to reflect changes in the land-use plan.

City planners say the Expo Line offers Santa Monica an opportunity to build more housing and businesses along the route and reduce reliance on cars. It's an appealing argument on the Westside, where traffic gridlock is a way of life. The Expo Line, which will run from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Santa Monica, is expected to open in early 2016.

Two of the proposed hotels and many of the other pending projects are within walking distance of the rail line, an added selling point for backers.

Still, many residents and even some elected officials are skeptical that more development will bring less traffic.

"It goes against my common sense," said Eleanor Blumenberg, 90. "People have bicycles, but they have cars too, and often two cars or three cars.... If you increase the density in the heart of the city people will throw away their cars and walk everywhere? I don't think so."

Perhaps the most contentious proposal is an expansion of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel at Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

The revitalization of the hotel on the northern edge of downtown would add almost 300,000 square feet of space, including as many as 120 condos.

Residents living nearby on California Avenue and owners of the Huntley Santa Monica Beach hotel directly behind the Miramar have complained about the project, especially the height of the proposed towers.

Under the current plan, one of the hotel's towers with "decorative architecture" would reach a height of about 320 feet.

Alan Epstein, lead negotiator for the hotel owner, said the Miramar is simply following the direction of the Santa Monica City Council, which asked the hotel to revise a previous plan and include a thinner, taller tower. Epstein said that the change would result in the loss of fewer ocean views for neighbors and more open space.

"For some reason, height has become a very polarizing issue in Santa Monica," he said in a statement to The Times. "Some equate height with density, which isn't fair."

Blumenberg, whose eighth-floor apartment on California Avenue has ocean views, doesn't like the fact that condos will outnumber affordable housing units when the project is complete.

"It's just really what they're doing to the character of the neighborhood," she said.

Blumenberg said she has lost her mechanic, a shoe store, a hardware store and a Norms restaurant while the city keeps adding coffee shops, bistros and expensive stores inside the glitzy new Santa Monica Place mall. She also isn't a fan of the new mixed-use buildings popping up all over town.

"So here's one of these new residential things," she said while passing a newly opened apartment building on 6th Street with a Chase Bank on the ground floor. "I think they're ugly. They're right to the curb. There's no charm."

Resident and longtime activist Jerry Rubin isn't bothered by the latest development projects. As he wove through a crowded farmers market on a recent weekday and a man serenaded shoppers with harp music from the sidewalk, he mused: "We're so lucky to live here."

Rubin, who has opposed development in the past, said the Gehry project's wavy white tower will soon be printed on "postcards across the world" and added that he is confident the community will benefit from the additional hotel tax revenue.

Residents have come to expect a wide array of social and municipal services from Santa Monica, but sometimes they forget where the money comes from, he said.

"Wait," he said, pausing in front of a scraggly tree on 2nd Street. "Is this is a money tree?"

City officials generally agree that the city needs new revenues to make up for losses in state funding, to update infrastructure, and to pay for the services locals have come to expect.The projects still require City Council approval, and it's unclear how many will ultimately be built.

In recent years, Santa Monica has become home to a thriving tech sector known as Silicon Beach, it's bike friendly and just opened a $46.1-million oceanfront park.

The Expo Line is in some ways the missing piece of the puzzle. It will be the first passenger rail line linking downtown L.A. and Santa Monica since the Red Car days.

Much mixed-use development has occurred along L.A.-area rail lines. But it's an open question whether the housing and businesses will reduce reliance on cars.

The impending arrival of the Expo Line is just the latest evidence to some residents that Santa Monica's character is changing — though not necessarily for the worse.

Emmanuel Soriano, 27, was drawn by the urban touches when he moved to Santa Monica from Silver Lake.

"The thing about Santa Monica is that there is this very unique mix of beach-side community and urban big city," said Soriano, who holds a master's degree in urban planning from UCLA. "They want to preserve the beach-side character while also acknowledging that it's a changing world.

"That is going to be a huge challenge."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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