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7 Neighborhood Groups Urge City to Rein in Development

In a letter to the City Council, Santa Monica's neighborhood groups say an inventory of all development since 2010 is needed to figure out if new apartments and condos are actually affordable to the people who work here.

Editor's Note: The following letter was sent to the City Council and signed by Friends of Sunset Park Board, Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors Board, Northeast Neighbors Board, North of Montana Association Board, Pico Neighborhood Association Board, Ocean Park Association, and Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition.

All of Santa Monica's neighborhood groups are troubled by the extraordinary number of development agreement applications (DA) filed in our city in the 2 ½ years since the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) was enacted.

Eight DAs have already been approved; 32 more are now pending. More are likely to be filed weekly as the result of the Expo Line project. Virtually all of the 32 pending DAs seek Tier 3—the highest tier allowed under LUCE—height and density maximums without a sufficient showing that they are entitled to be Tier 3 rather than Tier 2 or Tier 1 (“as of right”).  

We believe that the critical issue here isn’t how to better process DAs, as proposed by city staffers, it’s given what’s in the pipeline, we are rapidly approaching the maximum development levels called for under LUCE over 20 years—particularly with respect to new housing units. 

And the fundamental policy issue that we have to address at the same time is whether all of this new housing that is being proposed does what we need it to do: redress the jobs/housing imbalance and provide needed affordable and workforce housing required by LUCE.  

We strongly disagree that there should be any sort of separate, expedited track for these mixed-use housing projects primarily in the downtown (CEQA exempt) or that the City Council should stand on the sidelines while these DAs are being processed.

We think without appropriate oversight LUCE requirements will simply not be met. 

Instead, we urge you to take a step back and direct the city's planning staff to conduct an accounting of the total amount of proposed residential, retail and commercial units/square footage including administratively approved projects and projects issued building permits since LUCE was enacted. 

This accounting should also indicate whether pending projects being filed as Tier 3 actually provide all five community benefits specified in the LUCE when the application is submitted. If they don’t there’s no need for staff to process them as though they “might” become Tier 3 through negotiations.

Until that inventory and report is complete (and approved by the council), all processing of Tier 3 development agreements in the downtown and Bergamot areas should cease. This is the only way to know, for example, if our housing and Affordable Housing Production Plan (AHHP) and LUCE housing limits have been or are close to being achieved.

The Elephant in the Room – LUCE Housing Policy & Limits

Looming over the tsunami of development agreements overwhelming the planning staff is the lack of a coherent master plan for housing to address the jobs versus housing imbalance that is being applied to these DAs.

Of the 32 development agreements, 25 are for projects that combine commercial use with apartments and condos. In the downtown core, 19 of the 20 projects are for mixed-use with housing near the coming transit line. In Bergamot, all four pending projects include mixed-use housing.

The supplemental staff report in Tuesday night's agenda lists a net of 3,395 of housing units in the pending development agreements. But, this does not include the 539 units in the eight development agreements approved since the LUCE adoption in 2010, or the additional 200 affordable housing units in four code compliant projects administratively approved. 

If we take these together, as we must under LUCE, our city is processing over 4,500 housing units, which is very close to the 4,900 benchmark LUCE adopted.  And the number is undoubtedly higher, since it doesn’t include any other administrative approvals for as of right housing as to which permits have already been issued since LUCE. [1] 

In effect, 17 of the entire 20 years of projected housing units could be approved in just the first five-year period.   

Once the City approves the maximum housing benchmarks called for under LUCE and studied in the LUCE Environmental Impact Report, the city cannot simply continue to process DAs that are inconsistent with LUCE. There’s a reason why we have general plans that provide development levels—to manage the amount of development over a 20-year cycle so that our community can reasonably accommodate and plan for it. 

The plethora of housing units contains a troubling preponderance of studio and one-bedroom units at market rates. The LUCE policies mandating workforce and affordable housing are not met by these projects.  Only 6 percent (33 of the 539) units approved since the LUCE took effect in 2010 are workforce or affordable housing.  As a Draft Bergamot Area Plan city staff report notes, a survey of Santa Monica workers shows an affordability gap between the $2,000-plus rents being asked and the $1,000 to $1,700 workers are willing to pay. If we’re approving too much housing at market rates, we will attract a lot of new residents who work outside our city.

In the downtown core, two developers account for most of the proposed development agreements.  NMS has eight projects and Century West/Cypress Investments has five plus two already approved. Mixed-use development agreements that involve the same developer and the same type of housing in one small geographical area should require a cumulative study of all of their projects.  The study must include how the housing meets or exceeds the city’s Affordable Housing Production Program (AHPP), traffic impacts and enforceable mitigations. 

Otherwise, once again, the city has no way of enforcing its own LUCE transportation policy of no new net p.m. trips through suitable traffic mitigations. And as stated above, council oversight has never mattered more.

Downtown Specific Plan & Bergamot Area Plan

The Downtown Specific Plan has been in progress for a year and is expected this spring according to staff. In light of the glut of housing proposed for downtown and Bergamot, it is imperative that both the Downtown Specific Plan and Bergamot Area Plans be completed before any more development agreements are approved so that the plans can inform the process.  We urge the City Council to amend the Municipal Code chapter 9.48 to require that in areas of the city in which a specific or area plan has been initiated or in which the LUCE requires that preparation of a specific or area plan, that plan must be in effect before a development agreement in that area may be processed.  In particular, the plan must address housing policy near the transit stations and the overall mix and type of housing needed in Santa Monica. This is a policy decision and cannot be left to developer preference or chance.

Lastly, the issues of DA projects that might be entitled to priority and the timing of such projects are premature.  It must be a result of public input to City Council and commissions in keeping with the priorities and goals established in LUCE for further developing Santa Monica.  Revenue to the city is not the first priority in a city like Santa Monica that is flooded with DAs and doing well.  The fact that 32 current DA projects are proposed is a clear indication of the desirability of building here with the associated revenues that follow.  The city can and should select only exceptional projects that squarely meet the requirements set forth in LUCE as to Tier 2 and Tier 3 and as to the specific needs of the community. 

While we think processing DAs is not the highest priority, we have discussed recommendations for improvements to the development agreement process once processing of agreements is resumed in an attachment to this letter (included to the right of this article).

We urge you to consider and to implement the recommendations we have made before tackling the staff recommendations as to different DA processing requirements.

Sincerely,

Friends of Sunset Park Board

Zina Josephs, President 

Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors Board

Gregg Heacock, President

Northeast Neighbors Board

Tricia Crane, Chair

North of Montana Association Board

Albin Gielicz, Chair

Ocean Park Association

Jim Lawson, President

Pico Neighborhood Association Board

Wes Thompson, Co Chair 

Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition

Alin Wall, President

 

[1]  We also want to extend our thanks to resident and professional engineer, Armen Melkonians for his report of the draft Bergamot Area Plan which includes a detailed analysis of all new net housing construction in Santa Monica, not only DAs involving housing units.   If staff verifies his numbers, we will have reached the 20-year LUCE benchmarks of housing units with what is being built or awaiting approval now since 2010.

 

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Brenda Barnes January 09, 2013 at 10:16 PM
Good for the Neighborhood Councils! LUCE is indeed the elephant in the room. Nothing other than making truly affordable housing be built as a large part of every project will ever correct the imbalance of housing and working space the Council has already approved. Continuing unchanged is madness.
Brenda Barnes January 09, 2013 at 10:23 PM
That the Planning Department's response would be to suggest giving approvals easier shows they are not on the residents' side.
Stefani Uhler March 29, 2013 at 03:17 PM
My neighborhood was considered MID CITY NEIGHBORS. It was once the largest neighbood group in SM with hundreds of residents and businesses. No one can really say when this happened but a bump aka THE BUMP has been carved out and the corridor of car dealerships are now part of Pico Neighborhood Association. THE BUMP was obviously it carved out so car dealership have little opposition
Danielle Charney April 06, 2013 at 10:42 PM
This is such great work - this letter needs to be revived and presented for signatures of residents that are tired of it all - we are already at gridlock and the two giant condos haven't opened yet near City Hall- what is happening to east SM is a nightmare as well- let's get this moving for a fair chance at stopping any more of NMS- and Cypress and the rest of it-

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