City Hall (File photo)

Pico residents are saying they want more cultural centers, gyms and restaurants in their neighborhood and fewer hotels and motels, liquor stores and car dealerships.

The neighborhood known as the historic center of Santa Monica’s Latino community is rapidly gentrifying but still faces economic hardship. City Hall has been soliciting input from residents on what types of businesses they want to see on Pico Boulevard and is poised to start working on adjusting the area’s zoning code to help those businesses open and succeed. Planning Commission will debate some changes at their upcoming Jan. 16 meeting.

The City held two zoning workshops in September and November as part of the Pico Wellbeing Project. In addition to cultural spaces, fitness centers and small restaurants, attendees said they want medical clinics, childcare facilities and bars.

Staff say the changes made to Pico’s zoning code will be relatively minor but should remove red tape for businesses trying to open and allow certain types of business to operate in larger spaces. More specifically, the City plans to ease the process for gyms to come into the neighborhood and remove the ban on bars, clubs and lounges.

The code that currently determines the mix of businesses on Pico also governs Main Street, Montana Avenue and part of 26th Street, said Peter James, the City’s principal planner. It treats those areas as small, walkable districts and therefore bans hospitals and clinics, bars and medium-scale retail.

“Pico is three miles long and has some very large properties,” James said. “It should be treated differently than Main and Montana and 26th.”

The code also makes it difficult for gyms to open without paying for a conditional use permit (CUP) and providing a significant number of parking spaces.

For example, residents who attended a zoning meeting in November proposed that the large building an auto parts shop previously operated in be turned into an indoor playground, but the developer would have needed to pay $20,000 for a CUP and provide more than 30 parking spaces, James said.

“People are really interested in having gyms near where they live, and that should absolutely be part of the neighborhood land use pattern,” he said.

Another idea that residents supported is also currently banned under the code: a commercial kitchen akin to Mama’s Tamales in MacArthur Park, a nonprofit where residents with Central American roots serve up different types of tamales.

“Pico has tremendous ethnic variety, and there’s a lot for the community to offer for folks interested in taking a peek inside of the cultures represented there. One of best ways to do that is through food,” James said. “There’s a rich history at Virginia Avenue Park of people getting together for meals and cooking together at the Thelma Terry Center and we want to expand that opportunity to other parts of the boulevard.”

Not everyone thinks the changes will necessarily benefit the community, however.

Oscar de la Torre, co-chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association, has long criticized the City for making top-down decisions about Pico and said he thinks it has again excluded residents from the process.

“While there might be good things the City is proposing, I know from experience when they do these planning exercises and residents come up with 10 good ideas, the City will only select three good ideas they want to see happen,” he said. “Residents are not in control of the process.”

Some residents have also expressed concerns that tweaking Pico’s zoning will make traffic worse, James said he doesn’t anticipate that happening. He did say, however, that staff will need to look at how the changes might impact the gentrification the area is undergoing.

“It’s a very limited number of changes to the existing land use table that just moves a couple of uses people say they want into the permitted category and allows uses people like to grow a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a traffic impact in any way.”

Staff will present more in-depth plans to the Planning Commission in February, James said.

The Jan. 16 meeting will be held at City Hall, 1685 Main St. at 7 p.m.

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