The city of Santa Monica could streamline the approval process for large housing projects downtown as part of ongoing efforts to fulfill a state mandate for the city to accommodate about 9,000 new homes by 2029.
The Planning Commission voted 4-2 Wednesday to consider recommending that downtown developments larger than 90,000 square feet be subject to a development review permit rather than a development agreement. The commission will vote whether to recommend the proposal to City Council next week.
Under the Downtown Community Plan, developers of projects larger than 90,000 square feet must negotiate a development agreement with the city of Santa Monica, which increases both the number of public hearings on a project and the community benefits a developer is required to provide.
The proposal the commission will formally consider next week would eliminate development agreements for downtown housing projects. Planning manager Jing Yeo said making the approval process more straightforward and therefore less expensive would encourage developers to build larger projects.
The proposal follows an ordinance City Council adopted in March that allows 100% affordable housing and projects compliant with the state’s Housing Accountability Act to bypass the Planning Commission.
Both measures are intended to streamline the development process to meet Santa Monica’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which will require the city to zone for 9,000 new homes over the next decade. Other cities across Southern California with abundant jobs and transit are also being asked to build more housing to address a statewide shortage.
The proposal to eliminate downtown development agreements would apply to a handful of sites in downtown Santa Monica near the E Line terminus and the 10 Freeway that could accommodate Tier 3 projects. Developments are already planned or in progress on many of the sites, and others have buildings already in use.
Commissioners estimate only one to three sites have Tier 3 development potential.
Commissioner Nina Fresco voted against the proposal and asked the city attorney to address whether a policy change that would apply to such a small number of sites could be seen as aiding specific projects.
She also said streamlining the approval process for one to three properties would do little to address the need for more housing downtown.
“It seems like it’s designed to help a few projects,” Fresco said.
Commissioner Shawn Landres, who voted in favor of the proposal, also said he was concerned that the proposal could be seen as a broad policy change for only a few projects and wanted to ensure that Tier 3 projects will continue to be subject to a public design review process before doing away with development agreements.
The city has proposed suspending the Architectural Review Board as part of $86.2 million in ongoing budget cuts.
But he said he supported eliminating development agreements, citing the need to build more housing to fulfill Santa Monica’s RHNA allocation.
Landres said large housing projects near the downtown E Line station should not be subject to development agreements that delay construction and increase costs because the city’s zoning regulations are intended to promote housing production in that area.
Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi, who is also a member of the slow-growth group Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow, voted against the proposal.
He said residents would not be able to provide adequate input on large projects through the recently modified development review permit process, echoing dozens of residents who told the commission that eliminating development agreements would allow developers to embark on massive projects without community input.
“It’s pretty clear we have a divided city here. A whole lot of trust has been lost,” he said. “People feel the city is out of control.”
Slow-growth group Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City said in a letter to the commission that the proposal would allow developers to build luxury housing projects without responding to feedback from residents.
“It’s a cookie-cutter approach instead of being responsive to the actual needs and impacts of specific project sites and their surroundings,” SMCLC co-chair Diana Gordon wrote in the letter.
Matthew Stevens, the Santa Monica lead for pro-housing organization Abundant Housing L.A., said a December report from the city that concluded the Downtown Community Plan has failed to produce enough housing indicates that the city should consider removing barriers to building more housing downtown.
Without an adequate supply of housing, residents will continue to shoulder higher rents or move out of the city, he said.
“The failure of the DCP to produce new housing is not without consequence,” he said. “We appreciate this willingness to reflect on the efficacy of Santa Monica’s policies.”