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Frank Gruber

The Sky is Falling -- Again

By Frank Gruber

Once again, the Santa Monica City Council's failure to repeal the law of unintended consequences while trying to create a perfect world has created a "crisis" requiring rushed hearings and emergency legislation.

This latest imaginary emergency, like most in Santa Monica, a happy city with quite a few noisy unhappy people, is self-inflicted. It's the result of the council's short-circuiting of the City's process for updating the land use and circulation elements of the general plan.

Last year, a majority of our City Council Members (Richard Bloom, Pam O'Connor, Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown; Herb Katz opposed, Robert Holbrook abstained, and Bobby Shriver was absent), in full panic mode at the prospect that a State proposition (the Anderson Initiative) would take away their power to regulate land use, quickly passed an ordinance that purportedly expressed the community's consensus on land use -- as the Council divined it from a narrow reading of the general plan update process and a lot of agitation from a few Santa Monicans Fearful of Change. (see story)

The ordinance, while mostly a down-zone of the development allowed in residential neighborhoods, nonetheless had to reflect State law requirements to encourage affordable housing. The council also had to respond to local supporters of affordable housing -- the only non-fearful of change constituency in Santa Monica with any clout. So in addition to the down-zoning, the ordinance provided incentives for building affordable housing, particularly in non-residential districts.

Of course the council only has limited imaginative powers when it comes to predicting what developers will do, and now a developer has come up with something the council members hadn't thought of. Even though he is doing exactly what the ordinance encourages him to do -- building deed-restricted affordable housing in non-residential zones -- the City Council is rushing (the matter is on the agenda for tomorrow night's meeting) to head him off at the pass by throwing his projects into the netherworld of discretionary development review. (see story)

One major incentive for affordable housing the council included in the ordinance is an exemption from discretionary development review. (Affordable developments, however, remain subject to design review.) This exemption is crucial, for two reasons: developments subject to development review must suffer the years of delay typically required in Santa Monica for environmental review, and once the City has the power to deny a development permit, all the incentives the City enacted (and the state requires) for affordable housing become negotiable and subject to political pressures from NIMBY opponents.

Affordable housing developers, whether private or non-profit, typically cannot operate under these uncertainties.

Neil Shehkter, a private, for-profit developer of affordable housing, studied the new ordinance and realized that under it he could as a matter of right build apartment complexes of small units, deed-restricted to moderate income households (those earning no more than 80 percent of median income), in non-residential zones.

Mr. Shehkter has obtained administrative approval for two moderate-sized (100 and 65 units) developments near 20th and Olympic. But a much larger development he has submitted for approval -- 623 units in an area near Olympic and Centinela known as Drescherville -- caused alarm bells to go off with Council member Herb Katz.

The small units Mr. Shehkter proposes to build are known for zoning purposes as "single room occupancy" (SRO) units. The SRO designation is usually used for dormitory-type housing for people at risk of homelessness, and thus SROs have unsavory associations for some people. No doubt that association has contributed to the sense of crisis.

Mr. Shehkter, however, is actually building what are commonly known in local real estate parlance as "singles" -- one multi-purpose room with a kitchen and dining area, with a full bathroom. He's also leaving more than 60 percent of his lot area open, and providing a parking space for each unit. Most of the units will have balconies.

Mr. Shehkter is not building dormitories for refugees from skid row.

Nor is there an emergency. As usual, when the City Council reacts to change by deciding it needs to pass an emergency ordinance, it causes the City's planning staff and lawyers to draft a law preceded by a litany of false "Whereas's" describing how Santa Monica is about to descend into a hellhole. But Mr. Shehkter could build thousands of single apartments in commercial districts, and they would not have a significant impact on the quality of life in Santa Monica.

That doesn't mean that building 623 single apartments in one place, all by themselves, without a context of other kinds of housing, is good planning. It's not. But that's not a knock against small apartments; it would also be bad planning to build 623 2,500-square foot luxury condominiums or 623 1,000-square foot two-bedroom apartments, all by themselves.

"Mixed-use" is not just a matter of mixing up homes and shops, but also mixing up types of housing and types of households. Similarly, while it's nice that so much of Mr. Shehkter's development will be open space, from a planning perspective it's more important to be sure that the apartments are located in a network of walkable streets, with convenient shopping.

But the fact that Santa Monica has to deal with this bad planning is not Mr. Shehkter's fault, and it would be unfair to hold him up at this point, now that he's invested so much into his project. (It would also probably be actionable, but I'll leave that argument to his lawyers.)

The lack of good planning for the site is squarely the fault of the City Council, or at least those members -- Messrs. Genser, Holbrook, Katz, and McKeown -- who voted in January 2006 to derail the update process for the general plan. (see column)

The LUCE update was originally scheduled to have been completed six months ago. If those four council members had not reacted to the whining of Santa Monica's NIMBYs -- who weren't getting the results they wanted from an extensive public process -- we might have standards by now for our commercial and manufacturing districts that would result in more variegated and interesting development, and new grids of streets. (By the way, to give credit where it's due, Richard Bloom and Pam O'Connor voted to keep the process going; Bobby Shriver was absent.)

The other points to make about Mr. Shehkter's projects is that Santa Monica needs housing like that which he wants to build, and that there is nothing disreputable about a 375-square foot apartment. The planning department's staff report for the proposed emergency ordinance snidely disparages SROs by saying the largest are "comparable in size to a standard two car garage," but we should keep in mind that 50 years ago the homes William Levitt built for post-WW2 families were only 750 square feet.(see staff report)

Council member Katz, who is leading the charge against Mr. Shehkter's projects, said at the April 10 City Council meeting that Santa Monicans want to build housing for families, and it's true that Santa Monica needs family housing. But that doesn't mean we don't need singles, too.

The average number of people living in a housing unit in Santa Monica is less than two, so clearly there are many Santa Monicans living singly, to no ill effect to the community. Single apartments could house many of the myriad students, young workers, service workers, pink-collar workers, etc., who commute into Santa Monica -- contributing to traffic congestion. Their incomes are often both low enough to qualify for moderate-income affordable housing and high enough to afford it.

We also have plenty of one or two person households who qualify for Section Eight vouchers who would be happy to live in a new 375-square foot unit.

Tomorrow night it would not be unreasonable for the City Council to take steps to slow development with discretionary review in the areas that are near the future Expo light rail line until completion of comprehensive planning under the LUCE update.

But it would both unfair and counter-productive to apply these new review standards retroactively to worthy projects like Mr. Shehkter's, which in any case can be tweaked at the Architectural Review Board. Or maybe planning staff could work with Mr. Shehkter on a voluntary basis to improve the projects, by, for instance, adding neighborhood serving retail.

If the council passes its emergency ordinance, at the least it should exempt projects already submitted to the planning department.

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