Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)


Housing advocates are lining up at Planning Commission meetings to push commissioners to expand development potential in the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), the zoning document that will dictate rules for new construction in the heart of the city for the next twenty years.

“I think this plan addresses political problems but not the real problems of the housing shortage and climate change,” Carl Hanson, Director of Government Affairs for the Chamber of Commerce said. Housing advocates feel that the plan has moved toward the slow-growth side of the political spectrum in Santa Monica, ignoring escalating rents and the need for housing.

The plan reduces building height throughout downtown from the 84 foot allowance in the City’s General Plan since the 1980’s. For example, in the Bayside Conservation District (the area encompassing the Third Street Promenade) new construction will be limited to 60 feet. The most recent version of the plan also reduced height on the east side of Lincoln Boulevard to 50 feet to provide a “better transition to the adjacent Mid-City neighborhood, which is predominately one and two story buildings,” according to a staff report. In the Wilshire area east of 4th street, building height has been reduced to 4 stories.

Still, the DCP provides incentives for developers to build housing over commercial buildings. Apartment buildings near the Expo Line can reach seven stories.

“We contend that this is a housing plan,” principal planner Peter James said. “By and large, most of what you will see in the development spectrum are housing projects.”

Even with the restricted heights, planning staff estimates about 2,500 new apartments will come to the downtown area over the next 15 to 20 years. With those units the population could double, adding another 3,200 people to the 230 acre area. However, housing advocates worry the number will not ease the rent burden in Santa Monica.

“Twenty-five hundred would barely make a dent today let alone solve housing over the next 20 years,” Wilmont neighborhood resident Leonora Yetter said. “I think that’s something we should all be scared of.”

When Commissioner Richard McKinnon pressed the advocates on how they would change the plan to accommodate more housing, the speakers did not provide any specifics at last Wednesday’s meeting.

“We’re in a famine and you’re asking me how much food we should produce,” Hanson said, suggesting the Planning Commission should come up with a metric that would reflect how much Santa Monica should contribute to the state housing shortage.

The Southern California Association of Governments does stipulate how much housing each city needs to produce to fulfill the region’s housing need. The most recent report projected Santa Monica should build 1,674 units between 2013 and 2021. Meeting that threshold would depend on the pace of development in the downtown core over the next ten years.

“I think we all know this region has a housing crisis unless we also believe the earth is flat and it’s dire,” Commissioner Leslie Lambert said. “The Los Angeles region is like 100,000 housing units short of where it needs to be and there’s plenty of documentation about that.”

Lambert suggested that with the addition of the Expo Line in Santa Monica, SCAG could increase the city’s allocation of housing units. SCAG encompasses Los Angeles, Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties.

City staff members, including the City Manager, expressed doubt the city could ever produce enough housing to meet the insatiable demand for apartments on the West Side.

“The reality is, if you doubled the number of units in downtown Santa Monica over the period of time we are speaking, you probably would not effect the rent on a one bedroom apartment by more than about 100 bucks,” City Manager Rick Cole said.

The next Planning Commission Meeting on the DCP will address arts and culture, open space, historic preservation, housing strategy and social services. It will take place Wednesday, May 10 at 6:00 p.m. inside Council Chambers, City Hall, 1685 Main Street.

The Commission is likely to vote on the plan May 31.