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News Analysis -- Gelson's Proposed Project Is a Done Deal Under State Law

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By Jorge Casuso

February 23, 2022 -- Under California law, Santa Monica residents will have no say in the fate of the city's biggest housing development in nearly 60 years, according to City planning officials.

Outside of public input on design elements, last week's developer-sponsored public meeting that drew more than 500 Zoom participants was the last time the public will weigh in on the 521-unit Lincoln Center project at the Gelson's site, officials said.

"People really aren't understanding where we are in this process," said Planning Director David Martin. "There is nothing we can do to stop this.

"If it meets the code, the City doesn't have a right to deny it," Martin said. "As far as the City process is concerned, we see it as pretty straight forward."

Under SB330, which is meant to fast track new housing construction, the nearly 900,000-square-foot project -- comprised of ten five-story buildings on a 4.7-acre site -- only requires an administrative approval, Martin said.

There will be no meetings before the Planning Commission or City Council and no Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project, which includes parking for 880 cars and 816 bicycles.

And opponents cannot place the project at Lincoln and Ocean Park boulevards -- which includes 468 market rate and 53 affordable units -- before local voters as a referendum, since no legislative action will be taken.

The Lincoln Center project entered the City's planning pipeline on January 13, when a preliminary application was filed by SanMon, an affiliate of Balboa Retail Partners, which is teaming up with Brentwood-based Cypress Equity Investments, according to planning staff.

If the developer files an application for Administrative Approval within 180 days, Martin said, the project will "only be subject to the ordinances, policies, and standards adopted and in effect" on that date.

Dave Rand, the developer's lead attorney, said "an application will be submitted in the next couple of weeks."

Concerned that such a large project could be approved administratively, the City Council recently voted to require that projects exceeding 1 acre be subject to Development Review.

But the new threshold was not in place when the preliminary application was submitted, making the Lincoln Center project exempt.

The streamlining IZO (Interim Zoning Ordinance) in effect when the application was submitted, Martin said, "would allow the project to be eligible for Administrative Approval" under the following conditions:

It "meets the definition of a housing project under the Housing Accountability Act, does not exceed Tier 2 maximums, and agrees to deed restrictions to ensure that the units are used for rental housing for permanent residents," Martin said.

Based on the preliminary application, the Lincoln Center project meets all of those conditions.

In addition, the State Density Bonus Law allows developers to build larger buildings than local zoning law allows by providing a "density bonus" that in Santa Monica equates to a 50 percent increase in the FAR (Floor Area Ratio).

That boosts the project's maximum allowable heights from three to five stories. The 53 affordable units included meet the City's 10 percent requirement.

At last Thursday's Zoom meeting, Rand said the administrative approval process with the density bonuses will require "a long, exacting review by the City."

Different departments will reviews issues related to "circulation, safety, infrastructure (and) sustainability," among others, Rand said.

The project will also go before the City's Architectural Review Board (ARB), which will look at design issues in what will be the public's only chance to weigh in.

Rand said the process will take at least two-and-a-half years, with another two-and-a-half to three years for construction.

If built, Lincoln Center would be the largest residential development since the 17-story Santa Monica Shores twin towers totaling 532 units were built facing the beach in Ocean Park in 1966.

SB 330 "was designed to speed up housing construction in California during the next half-decade by slashing the time it takes to obtain building permits," said Nancy Skinner, the State Senator from Berkeley who sponsored the bill.

The law “prohibits a local agency from disapproving, or conditioning approval in a manner that renders infeasible, a housing development project for very low, low-, or moderate-income households."

SB 330 -- which sunsets in 2025 -- swept through both houses of the Legislature, winning approval in the Assembly on a 67-8 vote, and in the state Senate on a 30-4 vote, before being signed into law by Governow Gavin Newsom.

Santa Monica Assemblymember Richard Bloom voted for the measure, while Senator Ben Allen did not cast a vote.

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