A play-by-play recap of why neighbors are appealing the approval of a block-long building on Lincoln Boulevard
By Tim Tunks
Santa Monica resident Tim Tunks is a designer and retired educator.
A few doors down from my small Ocean Park duplex, a new development planned for 2903 Lincoln Blvd. would stretch an entire city block. Where there’s now an auto shop and a plumbing store, picture 47 apartments above ground-floor restaurant and retail spanning the east side of Lincoln between Ashland Avenue and Wilson Place — four stories tall on the north end and, at 308 feet, stretching far enough to overlap the goal lines on both ends of the Rose Bowl. Drive down Lincoln from Montana Avenue to LAX, and you won’t see a building with as much potential impact on north-south traffic flow.
The Santa Monica Planning Commission approved this project during a public hearing on Jan. 10.
But the game isn’t over yet. A small band of locals who felt their input wasn’t fully considered crafted an appeal and raised $500 to file it. The final sentence of the appeal reads: “The residents of Santa Monica are not adequately served nor protected by our representative city planning staff who, as public employees serving the city of Santa Monica, should be working in concert with the residents as well as with the developer(s).”
This appeal gives the Santa Monica City Council until April 24 (90 days from Jan. 24) to hold a public hearing and settle the issue. Meanwhile, the developer faces uncertainty and expensive delays.
From the cheap seats at the public hearing, this development game shapes up as a three-way contest among the government’s desire to increase housing stock, the developer’s need for a profitable project, and the localized goal of enlivening a portion of the Lincoln corridor without degrading the established neighborhood.
The city of Santa Monica fields many different players with a variety of responsibilities, but all wearing the same “What’s Best for Santa Monica” jersey. Functioning as rule makers and referees, the city’s players guide the game along. Building and Safety keeps the playing field hazard-free. Zoning tries to maintain control over what sort of building is appropriate to what locations. Mobility does something —though there was no evidence of traffic flow consideration in the record for this project.
The developer’s professional team outplays the amateur neighborhood team, but the city is in the mix to protect local interests while promoting controlled growth. That all sounds OK, doesn’t it? But things get more complicated.
The developer’s path — in this case the CIM Group, where Santa Monica’s director of planning and community development was vice president from 1999 to 2009 — runs an intimidating gauntlet of numerous laws, codes, regulations, special provisions, review boards, investors and public opinion. CIM Group has brought several projects to fruition in Santa Monica, and I admired the skilled presentation that CIM’s players brought to the approval hearing.
The players for the state of California are tasked to increase the housing stock by defending projects from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) objectors who don’t mind development as long as it doesn’t happen where they live. After a long checklist of criteria was met, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) granted Transportation Priority Project (TPP) status — a free pass that absolves a developer from traffic study responsibilities for projects with access to nearby public transportation. The Housing Accountability Act (HAA) offers another shield for a qualifying project: It limits the ability of local government to restrict development of “new low- to moderate-income housing or an emergency shelter unless the local agency makes written findings based upon substantial evidence in the record.”
The city sometimes also plays for the state’s team because they share affordable housing goals. Both CEQA and HAA restrict local government’s ability to block or demand changes to projects, but neither totally disarms the city from defending its own interests.
Scattered around the Planning Commission hearing at City Council Chambers was the ragtag batch of concerned neighbors waiting for their three minutes each to speak. At the speaker’s podium stage right, the city’s associate planner put the ball into play with the staff report, which follows along with a tightly scripted PowerPoint presentation projected large. He concluded with a recommendation for commission approval, of course.
The Planning Commissioners, appointed by the elected city council, sit above it all at their microphones on an elevated semi-circular platform. The Planning Division manager is stationed next to the city attorney, stage left. They dispense decisions as required to arbitrate or set aside emerging issues. Most on the platform demonstrated moderate to extreme enthusiasm for the project. A few found flaws deserving attention.
THE PROJECT SITE
The narrow strip of land known as 2903 Lincoln Blvd. is a complicated site for such a large project because its footprint backs up against a tall retaining wall and extends sidewalk to sidewalk on the other three sides. Any work or material deliveries that cannot be accomplished within that footprint must necessarily utilize the public paving, making sidewalk and roadway lane closures inevitable.
The construction excavation will be as deep as the building is tall, with no staging area within the parcel to serve excavation and construction. Digging equipment, cranes, concrete pumpers, contractor sheds, portable toilets, 40-foot long waste rollaways, stacks of building materials and a long list of other stuff all need space. Visualize a line of earth-hauling vehicles blocking a lane of traffic as they wait to receive all that dirt and haul it away.
To again quote the residents’ appeal: “Construction of this project will be a two-plus-year nightmare largely done in our public right of way. No more guaranteed 15-minute buses northbound at peak hours. The east sidewalk will be closed. The lot is too narrow to adequately and safely contain the large scale cranes, earth movers, etc. required to dig two-plus stories down and to lift steel beams four stories. They will have to work from the new bus lane and the sidewalk.”
Why wasn’t interference with traffic on Lincoln Boulevard during construction considered by the Planning Commission? As the rules are written, those issues must be addressed later in the Construction Mitigation Plan that will be filed with the final building permit applications this fall. You’d think such a vital issue would be part of the early evaluation process when all the other issues of site appropriateness are considered.
How will this building function when it’s finished? Let’s look at the underground parking and service areas — which, according to the current plan, residents and restaurant/retail customers can only enter or leave through a two-lane ramp that crosses the public sidewalk as it opens not to Ashland or Wilson, but to cross traffic on Lincoln.
Pretend you live at the new building and park in one of its 151 subterranean parking spaces. Imagine threading through the garage as others head out to work in the morning and breakfast customers enter to jockey for available spaces. Oh look — two delivery trucks at the single loading dock. And here comes the trash truck. Hope an ambulance doesn’t have to get through!
Earlier in the process, CIM presented three options for the parking ramp location. They settled on option No. 1, a ramp opening directly onto Lincoln near Wilson, after Options No. 2 and No. 3 — a Lincoln ramp near Ashland and (the one that made the most sense to me) an entrance from Ashland and exit onto Wilson — after initial resident feedback that it could seriously impinge on Ashland traffic flow. The law of unintended consequences solved that problem by creating a bigger one.
The plans call for a median island to prevent left turns into the ramp from southbound Lincoln traffic. I see lots of U-turns in our future, and occasional stack-ups when vehicles entering the building have to wait for the garbage truck to turn around or
the single loading dock is in heavy demand.
WINNERS & LOSERS
If the score stays put, the CIM Group are certainly winners because their investment in a problematic building site will be rewarded when the finished building generates income.
The state gets 47 units of much needed housing, four of which would be set aside for low-income tenants. We could say the city of Santa Monica is also a winner of much needed residential and commercial development to meet its expanding needs, in addition to more than $1.3 million in various fees, not counting final permit costs.
Residents and local business, however, face more than a year of construction dust and diesel exhaust, plus disruption to local bus lines. During construction and after completion, we expect increased demand for limited parking on our already crowded residential streets.
Property owners may see an uptick in value and an increase in rental rates if this building delivers the benefits it promises.
My takeaway from all this: Early participation in the process is Santa Monica residents’ best hope for steering development thoughtfully into a rosy future for our city by the sea.
City council, it’s your move.