Three takeaways from Santa Monica’s approval of a block-long building on Lincoln Boulevard

By Tim Tunks

The traffic plan to serve 47 apartments, a new restaurant and ground-floor retail defies logic

Tunks is a longtime Santa Monica resident, designer and retired educator who wrote about the project in our March 8 issue.

The outcome was never really in doubt. The victors had gained too much momentum before the opponents even took the field, and our goalie/referee was handcuffed during the final April 24 shootout.

Developer CIM Group’s plans to build a four-story apartment, restaurant and retail complex on the east side of Lincoln from Ashland Avenue to Wilson Place survived an appeal by neighbors, winning a unanimous Santa Monica City Council decision. 2903 Lincoln will move forward just as it was approved during a Planning Commission hearing on Jan.10, two years after the developer began working the approval checklists that various agencies and laws require.

One such law, the California Housing Accountability Act, provides a magic shield for qualifying projects that check all of its boxes. It’s a state law designed to facilitate residential construction by severely limiting local authority — in the case of 2903 Lincoln, hand-tying the council and commission from inserting common sense and local knowledge into the project design.

When my notice of a Jan.10 hearing arrived right before Christmas, I made an appointment with the city to see the building plans — plans not generally available until posted with the agenda a few days before the hearing.

Obvious design flaws were horrifying. The underground parking garage and loading area opens directly to Lincoln, forcing southbound vehicles to make U-turns to enter and exiting vehicles to U-turn if they’re heading south.

“But our hands are tied,” say the planners. “HAA does not require a traffic analysis.” Because the Planning Division feels forbidden by HAA to address such issues, we’ll be stuck with another traffic monster eating our time and threatening our safety for years to come.

To their credit, however, the city Planning Division staff members have been generous with their time and open in their discussions. Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the past four months:

Lesson No. 1: The hearing notice date for Planning Commission approval is more than a year too late for additional common sense to enter the design development process. Once the developer successfully navigates the shoals of regulation to attain the Planning Department staff’s check list for approval, the window for project modification seals shut. The project is safe in port and protected from future opposition, no matter its flaws.

Lesson No. 2: Santa Monica doesn’t have an updated city plan to properly accommodate inevitable residential and commercial growth in the next few decades. Without a good model for guidance, our city will continue to allocate valuable development opportunities to sprawling, land-wasting projects —buildings we’ll demolish in the future to make room for what we’ll really need. (Well-considered modern high-rise buildings, anyone?)

Lesson No. 3: Regulations require reasonable pushback to define their limits. HAA, along with similar regulations, has little case law produced from local government challenges. This gives developers too powerful a cudgel. At the April 24 hearing, the city attorney opined to the council that disapproval or new requirements for project modification at this stage could subject Santa Monica to serious financial loss from developer’s lawsuits.

Thus, “Our hands are tied” was the council’s unanimous conclusion.

So it will continue to be ‘Game Over’ for common sense opposition until members of the public get early access to development plans, while projects are still in their schematic design phases. Only then can “citizen science” help guide smarter development for our city.