When it comes to development in Santa Monica, it doesn’t have to be a new high-rise hotel, mixed-use plaza or seven-floor apartment building to generate heated controversy.

This time, it’s a relatively small, 10-unit apartment building overlooking Lincoln Boulevard on the edge of Sunset Park. The project is listed as “2919 Lincoln Boulevard/802 Ashland Avenue.” It was administratively approved because it meets the code requirements for R2 (low-scale) multifamily neighborhoods. The project doesn’t require either Planning Commission or City Council review.

Public review for administratively approved projects is usually by the Architectural Review Board (ARB). But, here’s the rub: the ARB has no power to substantially alter the project such as reducing its size or density. It can only deal with general appearance or cosmetics such as building color, trim, exterior materials, landscaping and signage (if any). Nevertheless, this project has been before the ARB a half-dozen times because of problems.

The project would merge two properties by a deed restriction. The first is a 20-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep vacant lot at 802 Ashland between a single-family home upslope and two foreign car repair shops downslope on Lincoln just east of Lincoln Boulevard. It leads to a larger, irregularly shaped, undeveloped, “landlocked” parcel with no street frontage. This parcel is like a hole in a doughnut and although it shows an address of 2919 Lincoln on city documents, it’s literally an island surrounded by privately owned properties. Access to the parcel is only via the narrow 802 Ashland strip.

The combined hillside parcels are 15,257 square feet and have a grade differential of approximately 32 feet, according to ARB documents. They are enclosed on three sides by houses and small apartment buildings on Ashland Avenue, 10th Street and Wilson Place and on the fourth side by Lincoln Boulevard commercial operations including two foreign car repair shops and the former Lincoln Pipe.

This 100-foot-long parcel, described as a “front-yard setback,” provides the 10-foot-wide driveway and walkway for four two-story, contemporary residential structures over a 20-vehicle subterranean garage. The development will feature two studio units (which appear to be on garage level), four two-bedroom units and four three-bedroom units.

One major issue is the size of the project. Because it is considered a “preferred permitted project,” it’s allowed a higher unit density of one unit per 1,500 sq. ft. This is higher than is permitted for projects in the R2 District, which is zoned for one unit per 2,000 square feet (with a maximum of four units plus state density bonus).

The ARB staff report states, “As a result, the project is larger than typical R2 projects, but meets all development standards for the R2 District.

“Preferred permitted projects were established in the Santa Monica Municipal Code to encourage the construction of two and three-bedroom rental units with environmentally forward design through the provision of increased density.”

The proposed 10-unit project would have one three-bedroom unit set aside for low-income (50 percent of median) occupancy, which also qualifies it for density bonuses – but strangely, that’s omitted from the project’s documentation.

The ARB report continues, “Furthermore, the scope of the project with the exception of design review is ministerial and exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”

Neighbors are frustrated with the lack of a proper CEQA review. They claim the development doesn’t meet the conditions for exemption. Some folks are concerned about traffic and parking impacts as Ashland is a very narrow, 29-foot-wide, steep hillside street and the new driveway will mean the loss of two scarce on-street parking spots.

The architects for this project are from Koning-Eizenberg Architecture, a major player on the Santa Monica development stage. Principal Hank Koning is a former Planning Commissioner. K-E replaced David Forbes Hibbert, another prolific Santa Monica architect. Hibbert’s designs had run into approval problems at ARB. He had proposed a single “motel-like” structure as opposed to four separate modules.

The developer isn’t named in the various ARB documents and a phone call last week to ARB Liaison Grace Page for further information and clarification of what appear to be contradictions in ARB reports was not returned.

According to the report, “The applicant’s (K-E’s) description states that, ‘the program of ten rental units is broken down into four separate buildings in order to create homes with backyards and/or private balconies and views’…” Yet, the gap between the two east structures is only four feet or an arm’s length! Kind of like the Millennium East Village on the site of the Village Trailer Park?

Last Monday, the ARB finally approved “2919 Lincoln/802 Ashland.” Neighbors have vowed to file an appeal, which means this development will go before the Planning Commission for further review. There, more substantial changes could be made. But, aside from insisting on additional “low-income units,” don’t expect this commission to reduce its size or negative impacts. Shoehorn, anybody?

Those opposing this development have set up a “Stop 802 Ashland” Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stop-802-Ashland/355718624600423. You can also email stop802ashland@gmail.com.

This apartment project illustrates how dysfunctional our planning and community development process is. Overly large – 10 units instead of four, a deeply sloped parcel, high density, almost full lot coverage, badly conceived street access, unimaginative design and negative affect on neighbors. It’s all there – in one small, ugly package.

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

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