The stretch of San Vicente Boulevard between 7th Street and 1st Court is the city’s premier collection of courtyard apartments.
These homes are from a period in Santa Monica’s history when, faced with a growing demand to live in Santa Monica as local businesses and factories hired more and more people, multi-family housing was being built to accommodate workers in the city.
Today, these buildings – many of them rent-controlled – represent an important piece of our housing stock and, as such, must be preserved. Santa Monica Forward supports the establishment of the San Vicente Boulevard Courtyard Apartment Historic District (SVHD) and urges the City Council to take the actions necessary for its establishment at its December 15 meeting.
Santa Monica’s population skyrocketed during and after World War II. The Douglas Aircraft manufacturing plant, located in the Sunset Park neighborhood, employed thousands of local residents starting in the 1930s and continuing into the postwar years. After the war, the RAND Corporation added hundreds more to the city’s workforce.
Santa Monica’s postwar population boom prompted city officials to rewrite its planning and zoning laws to accommodate this increasing workforce population. In fact, San Vicente Boulevard was once zoned for the highest residential density allowable (R4) west of 4th Street and the second highest density (R3) between 4th and 7th.
Single-family homes and small commercial buildings were replaced with the courtyard apartment complexes we see now on the boulevard to meet the demand for housing.
San Vicente is now zoned R2, but most of the existing buildings were built at a time when high density was the norm on the boulevard.
San Vicente had the added advantage of being served by Pacific Electric streetcars, which ran along the median until about 1950. The streetcars were then replaced with motor coaches.
The proposed historic district includes 40 buildings, of which twenty-six are preliminarily considered District “contributors” because of their construction during the “period of significance” for development of the street and their sharing of common characteristics that distinguish the District.
Built between the 1930s and the 1950s, these buildings represent a variety of architectural styles. Their common characteristic is landscaped courtyards that are visible to passers-by and enjoyed by building residents as spaces for social interaction.
During the community participation process leading up to the Landmarks Commission’s November action to nominate the District and send it on to Council, dozens of San Vicente tenants, condominium owners, and property owners expressed support for establishment of their neighborhood as a historic district.
There are many bungalow courts and courtyard apartments scattered throughout Santa Monica, all of which were built at a time when the city’s workforce was expanding and workers needed housing.
Courtyard housing is unique in its allowing for social interaction among residents and its affordability since most if not all of these housing units are subject to rent control.
This housing also adds to the ambiance of our residential streets with their landscaped open space that is viewable by all who walk, bike, or drive through the neighborhoods.
A meaningful new tool for preserving courtyard housing in Santa Monica is the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District program (NCOD).
NCODs were created by the Zoning Code Update and can be thought of as Historic District Light in that the thresholds for their designation are much lower than Historic Districts and the protections for existing properties is less. However, NCODs will have design and development standards adopted to protect the ambiance of the District, including courtyards. The program encourages proactive neighborhood initiatives to form NCODs.
Santa Monica Forward has and continues to support efforts to preserve our residential neighborhoods as the 2010 LUCE (before it was amended earlier this year) did by setting forth policies that directed new development away from these areas to our commercial boulevards, the Downtown, and the formerly-industrial Bergamot Area, allowing new neighborhoods to sprout where none currently exist.
Our multi-family neighborhoods house the majority of Santa Monica residents and offer the protections of rent control to the tenants among us.
But we must also do more than simply preserve the past; we must learn from it to help inform our decisions going forward.
San Vicente Boulevard and the courtyard apartments that line it to this day stand as a testament to smart planning. During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s city leaders understood the need to provide housing for Santa Monica’s workers. And they planned accordingly.
Cynthia Rose, Judy Abdo, Jason Islas, Frederick Zimmerman, Sharon Klein Hart, John Hart, Hank Koning, Michael Folonis, and Jerry Rubin for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at santamonicaforward.org.