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Wary Council Discusses Ways to Tweak Housing Plan

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By Jorge Casuso

February 24, 2023 -- The City Council trod carefully on Tuesday when discussing how to implement its housing plan, fearing that any changes viewed as restricting development could incur the wrath of the State.

The Council knew first hand that if its Housing Element falls out of compliance, it could open the floodgates to development that would be largely beyond the City's control.

"I sure as hell don't want to do anything to invite HCD review," said Mayor Gleam Davis, referring to the State Housing and Community Development Department, which is in charge of approving local housing policies.

"They're not our friend, guys," Davis told the Council.

Last year, the HCD determined that the housing plan submitted by the City failed to adequately show how Santa Monica planned to build the 8,895 new units, 69 percent of them affordable, mandated by the State.

As a result, 16 projects totaling more than 4,500 units were rushed into the planning pipeline with little public input ("Housing Plan Delays Led to Loss of Local Control," October 14, 2022).

The City must now show the State how it will implement a plan that includes "upzoning" the four Neighborhood Commercial districts, allowing taller buildings on Main Street, Ocean Park Boulevard, Pico Boulevard and Montana Avenue.

The Planning Commission recommended removing the strategy from the State-approved plan, fearing it will drive out small businesses that occupy the low-slung buildings and replace them with chain stores and housing in multi-story developments, ("Council Caught in a Tight Spot on Development," February 13, 2023).

Faced with the volatile political dilemma, the Council chose instead to establish limits on lot consolidation in the neighborhood Commercial districts "to help preserve small-scale businesses while also allowing potential redevelopment of existing larger parcels," officials said.

It also voted to submit a letter to HCD "requesting technical assistance on whether amending" the approved plan "would still allow the City’s Housing Element to remain in compliance."

The Council also considered proposed amendments to the City's Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), Downtown Community Plan (DCP), Bergamot Area Plan (BAP) and Zoning Ordinance to help assure the Housing Element remains in compliance.

And it voted unanimously to back lowering from 20 to 15 percent the number of affordable units required to be built on-site in Downtown developments, removing a potential constraint.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre suggested lowering the threshold to less than 20 percent but more than 15 percent, while Mayor Davis said remaining above 15 percent could trigger a review by the State.

In addition, the Council backed accelerating housing production by streamlining 100 percent affordable projects, moderate income housing projects and housing projects with no more than 25 percent non-residential floor area on sites up to one acre.

It also backed eliminating the existing tier system that bases the thoroughness of a review on a building's size and rezoning to increase building heights and floor area ratio standards for housing projects citywide.

And the Council backed an ordinance to implement a State law that requires only administrative approval of lot splits and duplexes on parcels zoned for single units and provides additional development potential for larger parcels.

Davis addressed the frustration expressed by residents who have been given limited input on development.

One administrative hearing, she said, gives residents a chance to provide input, while "letting residents think they can come to four hearings" only to realize "they have no say after one year" is unfair.

"We're adding to the complicated nature of the process" and increasing development costs that will be passed on in the form of higher rents for market rate tenants, Davis said.

The Council will continue the discussion on the implementation of the City’s certified Housing Element on Tuesday.

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