A major question concerning affordable housing in Santa Monica remains unanswered after the Planning Commission reluctantly approved a massive new development on Lincoln Boulevard.

The project is part of a sea of change coming to the stretch of the boulevard between the freeway and the Expo Line.  The complex at 1613-1637 Lincoln Boulevard will bring 191 new apartments to the street, replacing the JoAnn Fabrics and old Wertz Brothers Antique Mart. Century West and a subsidiary of USAA Real Estate Company, a national developer based in San Antonio, Texas, are developing the five-story property.

Out of nearly 200 units, the owner of the project has reserved 15 for affordable housing at the lowest income level, 30% of the average medium income. By providing the housing at the lowest possible rent, it meant the developer had to provide fewer affordable units overall.

“I’d like these people to have 30 affordable units or 20 affordable units,” Commissioner Richard McKinnon said at the contentious Wednesday night meeting before reluctantly voting for the project.  In the end, only Commissioner Mario Fonda-Barnardi voted against it.

“The Planning Commission has to choose what they stand for and what they are trying to convey to a developer and future developers,” Fonda-Barnardi said in a phone interview with the Daily Press, emphasizing his displeasure with the number of apartments being built so close to the pollution caused by the freeway and the 50,000 cars that travel down Lincoln every day.

This is just one of several projects that will bring approximately 350 new units to the street in the coming years.

“What they’re creating is the great wall of Lincoln,” Fonda-Barnardi said.

In return for all those new residents coming to the City, some Commissioners argue they have the authority to force the developer to provide more affordable housing at slightly higher rents. The City Attorney’s office supports this notion.

“It’s about what discretion you have holistically to approve this project or not” deputy city attorney Susan Cola said, saying the commissioners could potentially produce findings to reject the project as a whole and send the entire team back to the drawing board.

Her position did not go over well with developers, who select their affordable housing option on a sliding scale early in the development process. Land-use attorney Chris Harding submitted a six-page letter to the City arguing affordable units are up to the developer’s discretion.

“If you think you have concerns about the choices made by applicants, then you (should) think about changing the law,” Harding said, maintaining developers need certainty when drawing up plans for their projects.

“This (discussion) has alarmed a number of project applicants and people who have bought property because they have been advised by staff they make this choice. And all of a sudden that issue is in play now,” Harding said.

In the end, this particular project received a boost when the Housing Division weighed in, in support of the developer’s choice to serve the neediest of those on the waitlist for affordable housing.  Most of the people who need apartments meet the lowest income requirement. Without the 15 units provided by this project, the City would miss their annual objective for building those units.

The issue will likely come up again as more Lincoln Boulevard projects come through the pipeline.

In a last-minute attempt to appease the Commission, the developer decided to reduce the number of parking spaces in the underground garage from 388 to 292. While the move saves the developer money on construction costs, the decision will hurt the bottom line in the long run because so many renters are now sharing one-bedroom apartments.

“The inability to offer two parking spaces to two people who may have cars is a hit to the rent,” the project’s lawyer David Rand to the Planning Commissioners at the Wednesday night meeting, estimating the owner would have been able to charge $200 a month per space.

The project now moves to the Architectural Review Board.

kate@smdp.com

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