The Santa Monica Planning Commission recently denied the proposed Walgreens store on the corner of Lincoln and Pico boulevards. The developer spent over three years with his application at City Hall, making numerous changes to accommodate various city requirements, neighbors’ concerns and Planning Commission suggestions. These changes were praised by several planning commissioners at their recent hearing, as was the developer’s willingness to cooperate over several years, in making the project a better fit to Santa Monica’s regulations and preferences. Even so, the commissioners denied the project.
The commissioners’ main objections were the lack of a housing component on the site and the proposed surface parking on the south end of the property (away from the busy Lincoln/Pico corner). Over 30 parking spaces are required by the city for such a retail project, and the developer explored putting in underground parking, however, the narrowness of the lot would allow only about half as many underground spaces, when a ramp and egress are factored in. In other words, the parking spaces — required by the city — could only be accomplished at street level. If, as several commissioners preferred, housing were added, even more parking would be required on the site, therefore a mixed-use housing/retail project seems virtually impossible at that particular site within current parking and zoning requirements, no matter how desirable mixed-use might be.
Pico and Lincoln is a blighted corner, badly in need of a facelift, which has long been pedestrian-unfriendly. Having a nice new retail store with a pedestrian entrance on the corner would be a huge improvement to this busy intersection. Furthermore, the proposed drug store is a neighborhood-serving retail use, and is the kind of thing that is needed in a residential area where currently the nearest drug store is well out of reasonable walking distance. Many Santa Monica neighborhoods already have drug stores within walking distance. This one does not. Yes, it’s a chain, but this is not a high-end designer boutique; this is exactly the kind of neighborhood-serving retail use that the city of Santa Monica has been and should be encouraging.
The required traffic study cited possible additional traffic from customers driving to the new Walgreens. However, the study does not take into account that hundreds of residents within a couple of blocks of the proposed store will no longer need to drive to the nearest drug store, and the proposed Walgreens therefore may well reduce the number of overall car trips in the area by allowing people to walk, and not drive, to a drug store for basics.
Some planning commissioners implied that the owner and/or developer wait until the city revises its zoning ordinance for the area. Unless the city formally enacts an interim development moratorium, this is a truly strange notion. The application was made three years ago. Developers can only work within the existing rules. This one did, and now the Planning Commission, apparently unhappy with the existing zoning, denied an application since it doesn’t comply with the commission’s vision of future zoning. At present, given the parking requirements, it is very difficult to imagine a mixed-use retail/residential project being approved at this site. Commissioners need to make decisions based on the current zoning rules, not on ones they’d like to see in the ideal. This is a basic issue of fairness. Lay out the rules and decide accordingly. A shifting target is not a reasonable situation in which to place applicants.
The Planning Commission seemed to hope that a new proposal would come along in the future that better suits the city’s long-term vision. In denying a good project, however, they may well insure that no owner or developer will bring this parcel up for redevelopment for years or decades to come. This is a squandered opportunity to see new development at this corner.
Some developments are clearly bad for our city, but this one is a relatively small project that helps transform an ugly corner. A good-faith effort was made by the developer, with the required parking spaces at street level (the only viable option at the site), but it was still denied, not because the project didn’t conform to zoning and parking requirements, but seemingly in part because it did!
Hopefully the City Council will have the wisdom to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision should it come before them on appeal.
Elan Glasser is a longtime Ocean Park resident and former board member of the Ocean Park Community Organization. He lives near the proposed Walgreens store.