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Auto Dealer Proposals Go to Council

By Jorge Casuso

September 28 -- After three-and-a-half years of studies, meetings and public hearings, the City Council will finally take up a series of recommendations Tuesday night to balance the needs of auto dealers and residents.

Spurred by the need for dealerships hemmed in by residential growth to expand, the recommendations are a delicate balancing act to keep one of the City’s key economic engines humming without treading on neighboring residential streets.

“The auto dealer business has changed a lot,” said Mayor Richard Bloom. “If we’re going to retain auto dealers in this community, we’re going to need to recognize and accommodate for the fact that business has changed.

“The big question for the community is whether those changes can be accommodated,” Bloom said. “My sense is that they can be.”

The proposals the council will take up provide incentives for auto dealerships -- which account for a fifth of the City’s nearly $28 million in projected sales tax revenues for the current fiscal year -- to expand on their existing sites.

Under the staff recommendations – which mirror many of those approved by the Planning Commission -- existing auto dealers would be allowed to:

  • Develop more subterranean space for auto storage and other dealership activities and provide flexibility in utilizing their space by removing subterranean uses when calculating Floor Area Ratios (FAR).

  • Develop up to 1.5 FAR for automobile dealerships in commercial and industrial zones.

  • Build one additional story for projects that include at least one substantial subterranean level, with the height stepped up toward the main commercial street to minimize impacts on residential neighbors.

  • Add rooftop parking at all dealerships, including those adjacent to residential uses in commercial zones, provided that the rooftop level is screened to reduce noise impacts and protect residents’ privacy.

  • Develop parking structures for employee and customer parking or auto storage on Parking Overlay “A” lots that are used in conjunction with existing dealerships. (According to the City zoning code, an A Overly District is “intended to provide adequate parking facilities to support important commercial corridors and neighborhood commercial areas in the City, while assuring that each facility will not adversely impact the environment of nearby residents.”)

One thorny issue that divided Planning Commission and staff relates to what dealers can do with residentially zoned lots within the dealerships.

The Planning Commission wants to allow the residential lots to be further developed for use as parking structures, in the same manner as recommended for “A” lots.

“The intention would be that these parking structures could only be used for the adjacent dealership and would need to be demolished if the dealership use ceased,” staff wrote in its report.

Staff, however, disagrees with the commission’s proposal, arguing that it “is an undesirable long-term policy, which will permanently erode potential for neighborhood improvement” and “is contradictory to the Land Use Element’s goals and policies for multi-family areas.”

Instead, staff recommends “requiring dealerships with both ‘A’ lots and ‘R’ lots to release the ‘R’ lot in exchange for receiving more development rights on the ‘A’ lot,” with some extenuating circumstances.

In addition, staff recommends that “when any development is proposed involving a dealership with a residential lot(s) not proposed for removal, then screening, landscaping and other aesthetic improvements on the residentially zoned lot should be required as an approval condition to alleviate some of the noise, light, glare and aesthetic impacts on the neighboring residential uses.”

The proposals are meant to keep auto dealers -- which began setting roots in Santa Monica as early as the 1920s -- to remain competitive in a tightly packed City

“Some Santa Monica auto dealerships pre-date the residential development that now surrounds them, while others pre-date the intensity of that development,” according to the staff report.

“The combination of higher density residential development and increasing pressure on dealerships with relatively small land areas has fueled conflict over the years between auto dealerships and the surrounding residents.”

The culmination of a long and intensive process, the recommendations are expected to keep the dealers competitive and the neighbors content, staff said.

“The twin goals in this process have been to find workable, meaningful solutions that provide sufficient incentive for dealers to invest in improved facilities, while increasing protection of neighboring residential uses by requiring development and operational standards that mitigate the adverse neighborhood impacts,” the staff report said.

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