CITY HALL — Discussions about what to build where got real Wednesday night when the Planning Commission grappled with one of Santa Monica’s most difficult questions: How to allow services that people want and need while protecting neighborhoods and those that live in them?
The five-hour conversation wound its way through some of the most controversial land use issues that Santa Monica has faced in the last 15 years, like the treatment of car dealerships on Santa Monica Boulevard, regulations surrounding bed & breakfast-style businesses and big box stores.
New to the discussion, however, were regulations surrounding social service organizations that provide care for those infected with HIV and AIDS or have addictions to drugs or alcohol.
That came to the fore in early 2012 when Common Ground, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting people with HIV, announced its intentions to move its location only a few blocks north into the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica.
Current zoning along Lincoln Boulevard meant that the organization could inhabit the space without input from City Hall beyond the required “good neighbor agreement,” a process by which organizations that receive public money work with neighbors to mitigate their impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
The proposed changes to zoning laws would also allow Common Ground and centers like it to move into certain areas by right, including a proposed “neighborhood commercial” zone that includes small shopping districts easily accessible from local neighborhoods.
Other areas zoned for offices and industry would require special permission from City Hall to set up shop.
The proposal also cements certain aspects of the “good neighbor agreement,” including requirements for security, hours of operation, staffing and an emergency contact.
“What we were trying to do was find a way to continue to allow social service centers, which the city classifies as office use by right, yet have some requirements to which they have to adhere,” said Vivian Kahn, a consultant with Dyett & Bhatia, the company contracted to create the zoning ordinance.
Another option would be to just require the “good neighbor agreements,” she said.
One critical component of the regulation — how many of the service centers could be placed in one general location — was included, but left blank.
“It’s blank because we have no idea what’s going to work,” Kahn said. “The response we got from [city officials] who deal with these is that they need to be near one another because of the clientele.”
The issue of concentration is one that’s stood out in the wider discussion of social service centers, particularly with residents of the Sunset and Ocean Park neighborhoods who have complained that they have to deal with all of the unfortunate side effects of social service centers.
In the past, they have complained of finding human feces and hypodermic needles, as well as homeless people and other clients loitering in the area.
Placement of the centers is a critical component of the discussion, said Jeff Goodman, executive director of Common Ground.
“It’s important that we have this discussion, this round table so that all sides are balanced,” Goodman said.
Concentrating services in a specific area makes it easier for clientele to access help, but Goodman said he would be reluctant to create just one zone of social service centers.
“To say every social service agency would be in a corridor on Colorado (Avenue) or on Olympic (Boulevard) in an industrialized area could have a lot of unintended consequences,” Goodman said.
Commissioners expressed interest in another creation of the zoning ordinance process to solve the problem, a process called a “minor use permit” which would empower the planning director to approve certain uses at his or her own discretion.
That decision could then be appealed to the Planning Commission if those impacted were unhappy with the outcome.
Using the “minor use permit” process to allow the social service centers, or a concentration of them, could lead to trouble, Kahn said.
“The problem for doing a use permit like this is how can you decide where it’s a good idea when there’s a limited number of places that they can go,” Kahn said.
Wednesday night was only the opening shot over the bow on the topic of land uses in Santa Monica, with many future meetings to come.
“I truly appreciate the conversation that needs to happen, and I hope to be a part of it,” Goodman said.
Discussions about the new zoning ordinance have been ongoing for some time, although topics have largely focused on design and other issues.
The ordinance aims to fill in the details of the Land Use and Circulation Element, a 2010 document that gave a broad outline of how development would progress in Santa Monica.