A lot of attention has been directed toward larger developments in Santa Monica recently.

But, even the smaller developments have major problems. Such is the case with a new residential/commercial mixed-use development finally approved by the Planning Commission for 401 Broadway at Fourth Street.

The site is currently Grigsby Automotive, a car repair facility diagonally across from Santa Monica Place. The property owner is a faceless corporation described in City Hall documents as the “Grigsby Family Trust” and “Fourth and Broadway, LLC.”

The proposed project is a five-story project with 48 tiny, studio (single room) apartments and eight one-bedroom apartments. Average size of the units is 355 square feet. The ground floor retail component will feature 4,159 square feet of space with an additional 657 square feet of outdoor (dining) space.

The project will have no automobile parking. But, it will have 15 commercial employee bicycle parking spots and 56 residential bike spaces along with a changing area and showers.

This development is fraught with problems. Even though it’s Downtown with plenty of parking available in nearby City Hall-owned structures, cramming 56 units of “dormitory room” housing and nearly 5,000 square feet of retail space — most likely a restaurant with its outdoor dining patio — on a small 50-by-150 foot lot is bad planning, pure and simple.

Some people have suggested that it’s ideal for senior citizens or college students who don’t have cars. Does the developer or, for that matter, the Planning Commission think that 401’s tenants and customers won’t drive?

Claiming most students and seniors don’t possess cars or drive is a myth. The same myth suggests that low-income people don’t own cars, which is why tenants living in most of Santa Monica’s underparked affordable housing buildings are forced to street park in adjacent neighborhoods.

If the Planning Commission thinks tenants and the development’s retail customers will only walk, bus and bicycle, they’re living in Fantasyland. I’d never live in a building without on-site parking. Good luck to the developer who only offers a bike rack for parking.

I don’t care what the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) says about reducing car trips and encouraging bicycling and alternative modes of transportation, we’re still a vehicle-centric society. Ignoring the need for adequate vehicular parking is bad urban planning in a city rife with bad urban planning.

The original architect, David Forbes Hibbert, was criticized for the project’s uneven appearance and the small apartments. Hibbert was replaced by Michael Folonis who, after input from the commission, came up with a more acceptable design.

While Folonis’ modern, streamlined facade is head and shoulders above Hibbert’s busy vision, the commission’s interjection of itself into the design process is disturbing and a serious overstepping of its authority.

Commission suggestions included adding some larger apartments, expanding the outdoor dining area (before the space is even leased), “improve the building’s articulation and highlight the vertical breaks” and “enhance building movement by introducing different materials and colors.” Forget Hibbert and Folonis, the developer should’ve just hired the Planning Commission to design the project.

According to City Hall’s website, the Planning Commission is responsible for encouraging the most appropriate use of land, provide adequate open spaces for light and air, prevent undue concentrations of population, (56 units? 25 single/one bedroom apartments would be less concentrated), lessen congestion on the streets, facilitate adequate provisions for community utilities and community facilities such as transportation, water, sewage, schools, parks and other requirements.

Nowhere does it say, “act as designers.” And, the commission’s request to “consider the building’s historic design compatibility with the adjacent historic buildings” is definitely in the Architectural Review Board’s purview, not the Planning Commission’s.

The ARB has responsibilities to assure buildings are “in good taste, good design and harmonious with surrounding developments … ” and “contribute to Santa Monica’s reputation as a place of beauty, spaciousness and quality.” City Hall’s words, not mine.

LUCE mandates that developers provide public benefits, but fails to describe the benefits and who benefits. Here the Planning Commission has also stumbled. Decoupling vehicular parking is bad enough, but requiring a Transportation Demand Management Program for a project without any car parking? Go figure.

Or, the $175,000 fee for “transportation infrastructure improvements” such as a Fourth Street streetscape enhancement which could include wider sidewalks and narrower or reduced traffic lanes to snarl traffic even more?

This project goes to City Council for development agreement approval next month where they will surely try to gussy up this disaster with more micro-managing.

I predict that with the density, number and size of the units, lack of parking and other factors, 401 Broadway is a slum in the making and nobody in City Hall is objective enough or gutsy enough to say, “Stop! This is a pile of crap.”

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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