CITY HALL — Planning commissioners held their noses and approved three requests Wednesday for minor expansions to apartment complexes that are either in the process of being built or already have tenants.
Through the approval, the developer is one step closer to getting extra retail and residential space above that allowed by code but without an often lengthy public process that would have been necessary if he’d asked for the space from the get-go.
Commissioners struggled throughout the three applications, simultaneously finding it difficult to deny the seemingly small expansions, but unhappy with what they saw as a subversion of the process.
The buildings at 1447 Lincoln Blvd., 829 Broadway and 1548 Sixth St. are all owned by NMS Properties, a developer with holdings throughout Santa Monica known for their small size.
NMS requested small changes at each of the properties that were just enough to push the projects out of eligibility for administrative approval — a streamlined process that doesn’t require public hearings — into development agreements, which need to be signed off on by both the Planning Commission and the City Council.
Development agreements have become the norm for governing large developments in Santa Monica since the 2010 approval of the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, which dictates development and requires negotiations with City Hall for the right to exceed normal zoning.
The difference: The buildings on Lincoln Boulevard and Broadway are half built, while the 50-unit property on Sixth Street is not only finished, people already live there.
“It disturbs me that in fact the change we’re looking at today was anticipated from the get-go,” said Commissioner Amy Anderson.
The first project up for consideration was a 97-unit mixed-use building on Lincoln Boulevard. The developer asked to expand the retail space on the ground floor by 4,190 square feet and add a one bedroom apartment to the fifth floor of the building, which is currently under construction.
No retailers wanted to take the long, narrow space currently included in the building design, said Jim Andersen, president of NMS Properties.
“We wouldn’t have brought this at this hour if we had not tested the market to see if it made sense,” Andersen said.
Existing parking, which stretches three levels underground, overshot the amount of parking required for the original project, but met the needs of the new expansion.
Commissioners Anderson and Richard McKinnon expressed doubts that the experienced developer would have been surprised by a retailer’s needs, not just once, but twice.
The second development agreement, for the property on Broadway, also sought a retail expansion — 2,915 square feet — and another studio for the building.
“We want the expansion of this space because it wasn’t as functional when we tried to market it,” Andersen explained.
The third, on Sixth Street, proposed four new residences in what was previously classified as “non-useable” space.
One of the four proposed units would be deed restricted as “very low income,” potentially for a senior citizen, and the remaining three would be two bedroom apartments rented at market rate.
Each of the developments came with a small suite of community benefits, including $25,000 per building for nearby transportation projects and a plan to reduce traffic created by the new residences.
Commissioners recommended that the City Council approve the agreements, but asked for more money in traffic fees.
Had the projects included the extra space from the beginning and gone through the development agreement process from start to finish, the community would have gotten more for the nearly 250 residences, 22,000 square feet of retail and more than six levels of subterranean parking, McKinnon said Thursday.
“The DA process would have exposed what was being built to the community,” McKinnon said. “It would have been a stronger project for everyone.”
He believed they might have been able to get larger apartments rather than the 375- to 460-square-foot apartments included in the project, many of which were studios at one point before the developer added an additional wall without expanding the square footage.
The company charges over $100 per unit extra for a one bedroom over a studio of the same size, commissioners noted.