The corner of Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue is on track to be redeveloped into a pair of affordable hotels. (File photo)

The Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) Initiative will stop oversized projects while protecting rent controlled and affordable housing in Santa Monica. Our current City Council believes dense, tall, and ill-designed projects are a worthwhile exchange for a handful of affordable units and other minimal “community benefits.” The truth is LUVE strongly supports housing, but will empower voters to stop large, environmentally damaging mixed-use projects that are currently being built under the city’s Development Agreement process. LUVE will stop the developer feeding frenzy that is eroding existing affordable rental housing and choking our beach town.

Consider the many ways that LUVE will have a beneficial impact on housing:

Height is not a limit to housing development with LUVE.

Our city is predominantly 1 and 2-stories. Downtown and along the boulevards, 75% of the properties are either 1 or 2-stories or vacant lots. The average height of buildings downtown is approximately 30′. Our existing zoning code establishes a 32′ height limit, which LUVE endorses. Designing 3-story buildings within 32′ is totally feasible. Given the amount of vacant lots and 1-story buildings throughout the boulevards and downtown, 32′ allows substantial room for additional growth while incentivizing adaptive reuse of existing 2-story buildings.

Growth is possible.

If one were to develop the 1-story buildings and vacant land to a height of 32 feet along the boulevards and in the downtown, it could create up to 20 million sq. ft. of housing, the equivalent of 15,000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. This amounts to a 60-year supply, according to the Southern California Association of Governments. LUCE, Santa Monica’s general plan, anticipates adding 5,000 homes housing an additional 10,000 people by 2030. Santa Monica will likely continue to exceed SCAG targets. Almost 900 units were approved for construction last year, 375 percent more than required.

Seventy-seven properties are excluded from voter approval with LUVE.

The 77 properties excluded from LUVE are identified in the “Suitable Site Inventory” in Santa Monica’s General Plan Housing Element. These sites are identified as “underutilized properties in transit oriented, mixed-use districts — including mixed-use boulevards, downtown, Bergamot & Memorial Park — four areas where strong interest to develop housing has already been demonstrated.” These are vacant lots or 1-story properties built prior to 1942 without a 32-foot height restriction. These 77 properties alone represent 4,500 units capable of accommodating 9,000 new residents- 10% of our current population. 20% of the 4,500 units (900 units), could be designated “affordable” through the approval process. Additionally, LUVE does not require voter approval of 100% affordable, moderate income, or senior housing projects or projects in compliance with Coastal Zoning.

LUVE protects rent-controlled housing rates.

It’s a common assumption that housing surplus depresses rents with supply overriding demand. But Santa Monica’s history, due to its location, shows rents continually rising despite the number of new units built. A 2015, survey showed median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica at $3,160, the highest on the Westside including Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood and Westwood. When location drives demand, rents go up no matter how much housing is built. Unless 10,000 units drop from the sky, rents are not going to stabilize under the present D.A. process. With higher rents, fueled by infinite demand, how can LUVE help resolve this conundrum? A 3-story, 32-foot limit will dampen increasing land values that are currently based on 6 & 7-story heights. A 3-story building will reduce permit processing and construction cost compared to buildings with twice the height, that necessitate 1 or 2 stories of concrete construction, additional fire regulations, etc. And with further economic incentives, the adaptive reuse of existing 2, 3 and 4-story buildings, workforce housing for middle income families and young professionals would be more economical and much more realistic.

LUVE preserves affordability.

Our City Council regards affordable housing production as a top priority often at the expense of the environment, work-force housing, open space, sunlight & blue skies, and traffic congestion. About 1,000 affordable units have been built by private developers under the city’s Affordable Housing Program with another 200 affordable units in the 25 pending D.A.’s. Once LUVE is approved, redevelopment of the 77 lots listed in the Housing Element as “underutilized properties” could provide an additional 900 affordable units. With lower land and construction costs, and city incentives, a good amount of affordable units could be realized through buying and rehabbing existing buildings. The city should be using its own resources to achieve housing quotas. There is the possibility of developing an unused portion of the Blue Bus yard into a village of 350 garden apartments complete with social programs. This would require assigning equivalent acreage at the Bergamot or airport service yards to transportation or simply asking Washington to release the city from its commitment to transportation. Other opportunities might allow “granny flats” above or adjacent to garages. Creative thinking needs to replace our dependence on developers!

LUVE preserves existing neighborhoods.

As land prices rise, so does gentrification. With Santa Monica neighborhoods and commercial streets being predominantly 1 and 2-stories, changing a code that currently allows 5, 6 and 7-story buildings to one that allows 1, 2 and 3-stories will definitely help preserve existing neighborhoods and promote mixed-use development while retaining neighborhood scale and character.

LUVE will help minimize future traffic impacts.

LUVE will minimize traffic impacts by spreading development throughout the boulevards and our downtown, lessening concentration of traffic in specific areas where developers feel they can make the most money. Concentration of density near transit stations has proven to raise rents in those areas – shutting out lower income families that are the most likely to use transit. LUVE will lead to a more attractive and safer pedestrian environment with human scale buildings that will provide “eyes on the street.”

LUVE allows rebuilding after fires, earthquakes or other natural disasters.

LUVE allows the same response to earthquake, fire, or flood damage as our current code. State law allows rebuilding of public schools and multi-family housing. Additionally, the city’s municipal code pertaining to rebuilding after these types of losses is not altered by LUVE for all building uses within the city. Whether a building is damaged partially or in whole, the city’s existing code will continue to govern and allow complete reconstruction without voter approval requirements. The existing process of reviews and approvals for reconstruction will govern. LUVE does not alter what building and state codes allow for these types of reconstruction activities.

In summary, LUVE protects existing housing and neighborhoods and offers opportunities to add all the housing we could ever need. The reason for the LUVE Initiative is to stop the stampede of development and greed, ill-designed buildings, lack of open space, and promised “community benefits,” which aren’t worth the price and may never materialize — like the parking structure promised but never built after St. John’s Hospital expanded. It’s about ending a process that approved 365 units in 5 story buildings in a neighborhood of 1 and 2 story buildings where the city settled for $2.4 million in “community benefits” while the developer sold his approval for $68 million without ever breaking ground.

City Hall’s lack of foresight and creative thinking has brought us to this point. When will City government learn that bigger is not always better? LUVE affords them this opportunity. Everybody needs to understand who the real stakeholders are — it is the residents, not developers. There is absolutely no reason to cater to developers when we can build within the code as LUVE allows, achieving all of our goals. LUVE is workable, sustainable, and, yes, sorely needed!!

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission