City Hall is supporting a plan to open an educational garden on Montana Avenue and 4th Street.
The Planning Commission voted Wednesday to allow a pair of local philanthropists to turn a vacant apartment building into a garden that will teach children from local elementary schools and preschools how to grow and prepare produce – free of charge. Most of the corner lot will be filled with vegetable planters and fruit trees, with a low black building set far back from Montana Avenue housing a classroom and kitchen.
Thao and Sherman Ma moved to Santa Monica more than 10 years ago and are raising five children in the city. The couple said they visited the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley several years ago and questioned why Santa Monica did not have an educational garden and kitchen of its own. Inspired by the philosophy of Alice Waters, the celebrity chef behind the Edible Schoolyard, they decided to buy the corner property five years ago with the intention of starting a similar program there.
“Food education is life education,” Thao Ma told the Planning Commission Wednesday. “What my mother taught me about food when I was young I use every day with my own family. We want to create a community of compassionate children who grow up to be aware of where food comes from.”
Thao Ma used the Ellis Act to evict the tenants of the two-story apartment building currently sitting on the lot and the project, dubbed the Rainbow Garden, has been in the works ever since. Nearby residents, however, said the Mas only made them aware of the project within the last month and some have raised concerns about the traffic and noise the learning center may generate.
The conditional use permit (CUP) the Planning Commission approved allows a maximum of 40 children on the site at any time, and the Mas said the center will host about two classes per day. They plan to encourage local schools to walk or use public transportation to get to the Rainbow Garden. Carpooling is another option: the idea is for field trip chaperones to park vans in the seven on-site parking spaces, Thao Ma said.
Commissioner Shawn Landres said the project needs to plan around school buses as well, because the Rainbow Garden may eventually host schools that can’t walk, carpool or use city buses.
Chair Mario Fonda-Bonardi suggested that city staff include arrangements for school buses to share a nearby Big Blue Bus stop or set aside a loading zone on Montana Avenue in the circulation plan for the site.
That didn’t satisfy some neighbors, who said they want to see the Rainbow Garden succeed but are concerned that it will make the neighborhood congested. Some also said they want it to close on the weekends for noise reasons.
However, most residents who spoke at the meeting supported the project and the Planning Commission ended up granting the Mas’ request to hold events with up to 20 people once a week and events larger than that once a month. Staff originally proposed allowing one small event each month and two large events each year.
Thao Ma said the smaller events would be community gardening or cooking classes and the large events would be fundraisers for the center. Any event would have to end by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekend nights.
Every commissioner praised the project as a generous gift to the community before voting to grant it a CUP. Only Landres abstained from the final vote, noting the loss of 18 rent-controlled units on the property.
“We have a housing crisis in Santa Monica and … for me to sleep at night I need to recognize that loss,” he said.
The Planning Commission will evaluate the Rainbow Garden’s impact on the neighborhood two years from now.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the apartment building at 401 Montana Ave. housed 13 units. In fact, it is an 18-unit building.