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Gelson's Project Gets First and Final Board Approval


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By Jorge Casuso

March 5, 2024 -- What planning officials deemed inevitable two years ago became a done deal Monday night -- the city's biggest housing development in nearly 60 years was approved unanimously at its only public hearing.

The proposed 521-unit Lincoln Center -- composed of 12 separate six-story structures at Lincoln and Ocean Park boulevards -- was approved 5 to 0 by the Architectural Review Board (ARB), with two members required to recuse themselves.

View along Ocean Park Boulevard
Lincoln Center view along Ocean Park Boulevard (Images courtesy Cypress Equity)

It was the second and last chance for the public to weigh in on the project that was unveiled by the developer, Cypress Equity, during a Zoom community meeting two years ago attended by some 500 participants.

On Monday, some 50 members of the public attended the in-person meeting with 14 speakers weighing in. A dozen strongly opposed the proposed mixed-use project, while two --including former Mayor Pam O'Connor -- supported it.

"The Architectural Review Board members reviewed the project in a very thorough manner and provided detailed comments and conditions," said Stephanie Reich, the City's Design and Historic Preservation Planner.

The approval came with a list of conditions restricted to such elements as landscaping, lighting, colors, design details and materials.

But the 900,000-square-foot project's size qualified for administrative approval under California's "density bonus" law meant to fast track new housing developments that meet the code.

The Housing Accountability Act (HAA) "precludes the City from denying or imposing any conditions upon any housing project," planning staff wrote in its report for the meeting.

The only exception is if the project "would have a specific, adverse impact on public health or safety" that cannot be feasibly mitigated, staff said.

"The HAA does not preclude the Board from exercising its discretion and imposing design conditions as part of its review," staff wrote.

"However, the ARB is prohibited from imposing any design conditions that have the effect of reducing the number of residential units and/or the residential density of this mixed-use project."

Lincoln Center southeast view
Lincoln Center southeast view

Before the State stripped local jurisdictions of much of their authority to regulate housing developments, large projects required meetings before the Planning Commission and City Council and a costly Environmental Impact Report (EIR) produced by the developer.

In addition, a public comment period was required, and opponents could place the project before local voters as a referendum once a legislative action was taken.

Under the current process, the applicant now must only acquire the necessary permits and submit construction drawings for the proposed 4.7-acre project, which includes 468 market rate and 53 affordable units, 30,200 square feet of ground floor commercial space and parking for 880 cars and 816 bicycles.

Less than two months after the proposed project was publicly unveiled at the February 17, 2022 virtual community meeting, slow-growth activists took action to derail it.

"The City is not going to sue the developer and the developer is not going to sue the City," Diana Gordon, who heads Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC)the Coalition, said at the time.

"At the end of the day it's going to be the residents that can go to it" ("Slow-Growth Group Launches Battle to Stop Project on Gelson's Site," April 7, 2022).

By then, Planning Director David Martin had warned slow-growth activists that the development landscape had radically changed since they had successfully fought to kill The Plaza project Downtown ("New Council Kills Plaza Project," December 15, 2020).

"People really aren't understanding where we are in this process," Martin told the Lookout at the time ("News Analysis -- Gelson's Proposed Project Is a Done Deal Under State Law," February 23, 2022).

"There is nothing we can do to stop this," he said. "If it meets the code, the City doesn't have a right to deny it."

In a last-ditch effort to scale-down the project, SMCLC addressed an open letter to Cypress Equity Tuesday signed by more than 750 community members, including Mayor Phil Brock and three current Councilmembers.

"While recent state law has severely limited local input on development decisions, that shouldn’t stop you from being responsible corporate citizens," the letter said. "We urge you to listen to residents and do the following:

"Reduce your project’s 'density bonus' from 50% to 25% (130 fewer units) OR reduce all building heights to no more than four stories."

The Coalition's website on Tuesday asked supporters to "stay tuned."

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