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Planning Commission Gives Final Approval to Controversial Santa Monica Apartment Complex

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 24, 2015 -- A proposal  fought by  neighbors to build a 10-unit apartment building on a vacant Santa Monica hillside was given the final go-ahead by the Planning Commission Wednesday, with several members expressing sympathy but arguing they could do little.

The unanimous vote came after neighbors appealed an Architectural Review Board (ARB) decision to approve the project, requiring the Commission to only consider such issues landscaping, building design and color considered by the Board.

 “We hear you and we understand,” Planning Commissioner Gerda  Newbold told the audience, which included many neighbors whose homes are near the project at Lincoln Boulevard and Ashland Avenue. “But our hands are tied.”

The commissioners included three conditions to their approval, including that the applicant – Koning Elizenberg Architects -- plant two trees on the east side of the complex.

The two other  conditions required that changes be made to give visual relief from an 84-foot-long wall that borders part of the neighborhood and that venting from the garage area be changed to point away from neighboring properties.

Opponents of the project were not impressed.  Their big concerns – traffic, noise, congestion, potential environmental hazards – went unaddressed, they said.

“This project needs more scrutiny,” argued Jane Dempsey during the nearly three-hour hearing heavily attended by opponents.

“I’m not happy,” said Rachel Kelley, who with her husband filed the appeal of the ARB decision in January.  “We felt the sympathy. I just don’t understand why anyone can’t do anything for us.”

Kelley said she didn’t know what opponents would do next, if anything.  The City Council’s approval of the project is not necessary, and there has been no discussion of litigation.

“I wouldn’t go out on that limb,” she said.

From the beginning, neighbors have argued that the builders shoehorned too many units into a space that, under normal circumstances, would only handle four units.  They also worried about the traffic coming off of Ashland, a narrow winding road; the loss of privacy and the asbestos-filled tiles scattered on the vacant hillside from a previous project.

Kelley said the group felt abandoned by the city’s codes. In this case, the proposal was deemed a “preferred permitted” project, a designation meant to provide builders with incentives to construct multi-family units. As such, the project can move forward as a whole without special approval from City planners or the City Council.

As a result, when opponents showed up to protest the project on issues such as size, congestion and environmental concerns, the ARB told them it could not move beyond its limited purview.

The ARB reviews all multi-family residential and most commercial projects.

As it now stands, the construction would consist of three three-bedroom units (one earmarked as affordable housing), five two-bedroom units and two studio apartments. Also included is a courtyard in the center of the property, plus the addition of private patios and deck space for each unit.

For a project to qualify for its special “preferred permitted” designation, 25 percent of the units must be three bedrooms or larger and 60 percent of the remaining must be two bedrooms or larger. 

For Kelley, the project will mean the loss of most of her home’s backyard view.  It will be replaced by a wall she said, eliminating the view of the hillside she now enjoys.

Kelley said opponents will follow up with the Air Quality Management District to see how the asbestos tiles should be handled. But, as for the City level of government, she said she’d given up.

“We’ve lost faith in them,” she said.

Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon acknowledged that the project brought up many tricky  issues, but noted that they should be considered now as the City updates its new zoning code. 

“We can sweep it up into that,” he said.

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