Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)

The City Council unanimously voted to strike down a resident’s appeal to prevent a four-story apartment complex planned for the stretch of Lincoln Boulevard between Ashland Avenue and Wilson Place. The CIM Group project with 47 apartments will move forward despite two “reluctant yes” votes from Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich and Tony Vazquez.

During the two hour discussion of the appeal, many frustrated neighbors described a difficult traffic situation on Ashland Ave, where commuters cut through the narrow, steep residential street. To make matters worse, delivery trucks avoiding the congestion on Lincoln often block the avenue as well. One homeowner warned a large complex with two levels of underground parking would “significantly increase the misery index for the neighborhood residents.”

“It’s a freakin’ mess,” agreed Mayor Ted Winterer who lives nearby. When reviewing housing projects, state law restricts the Council from reducing density or denying a project if it meets local code. The Housing Accountability Act says cities must demonstrate they cannot mitigate a “specific, adverse impact on the public health or safety” in order to deny a project.

“Hard to talk when your hands are tied,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown before voting to deny the appeal. The Council directed staff to explore all available options to improve traffic flow in the area. Principal Planner Peter Jams said the city could adjust the timing of nearby traffic signals to allow for safer U-turns on Lincoln Boulevard. The project itself was determined CEQA exempt and did not trigger a traffic study.

The apartment complex will replace an auto shop and vacant plumbing supply store across the street from Pancho’s tacos on the busy corridor. Four of the units will be deed restricted for low-income residents. Members of the Planning Commission applauded the project for activating the street when they approved the Development Review Permit in January.

During Tuesday’s hearing, staffers from the city’s planning department repeatedly assured the Council the plan was up to code, despite objections from nearby residents. The discussion ranged from broad concerns about traffic to arcane calculations using the Pythagorean theorem to determine the parcel’s slope. A spokeswoman for the applicant, CIM Group, denied that calculations played to the developer’s benefit.

“We spent multiple meetings reviewing grade and the correct approach to this,” she said. “The grade even currently shown is still punitive to the project. We left FAR and units on the table because the grade measurements do not allow us to use the full envelope. There’s not as if there was an advantage to how this was calculated.”

Himmelrich said she was sympathetic to resident concerns that the zoning code allowed the developer to pick and choose measurements for greater height and density. Notably, despite an entrance on the busy Boulevard, the project’s frontage is actually Ashland Avenue.

“I am critical of the code because it ignores the reality of the building site,” Himmelrich wrote in an email to the Daily Press. “The best example is the ‘frontage.’ The developer and everyone else acknowledged that the real frontage was on Lincoln, but our code is based on the old-fashioned notion that most of the lots in Santa Monica (and elsewhere) have frontage on public street which is the narrowest end of the lot. We need to look at reality in approving projects. So in my opinion, the code needs revision.”

The project will now head back to the Architectural Review Board for further assessment.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press