Nonresidential developments in Santa Monica and single unit dwellings in the city’s commercial zones are temporarily banned after City Council passed an Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance this week.

Like many municipalities in the region, the City of Santa Monica is currently working on its Housing Element, a document that is prepared every eight years to analyze the community’s housing needs and detail data on housing stock and demographics. One of the most important aspects of the process is the document’s Suitable Sites Inventory, which identifies barriers to the production of housing — both for market-rate and affordable housing.

Currently, staff is in the process of preparing a draft SSI for the 6th Cycle Housing Element. However, in recent years, the city has seen an uptick in applications submitted for non-residential development on potential housing sites in the city’s commercial districts, which have the potential to house some of the 8,895 units that Santa Monica is currently mandated to build between 2021 and 2029.

The turnover of even a handful of these sites to non-residential development instead of housing projects would greatly impact the City’s ability to have sufficient sites for the SSI and would very likely hamper future Housing Element updates, staff said earlier this week. As a result, a temporary prohibition on non-residential development was proposed to ensure that the Housing Element Update has the opportunity to evaluate all available areas of the city for housing potential.

“It’s been city policy to encourage new housing along transit boulevards, downtown (and) essentially places where housing doesn’t exist now, so that by building new housing — we’re not tearing down existing housing and moving out people who live here now like we do,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said. “So, as we look at this housing element and the requirements to build a considerable amount of new housing, we are legitimately interested in building that in places where it won’t displace existing housing or disrupt existing neighborhoods. So, our commercial corridors and places that have been in commercial use are very important resources; and what this interim zoning ordinance does is to let us consider, evaluate and, perhaps, act on the use of that resource.”

During Tuesday’s discussion, McKeown said, “If we don’t put a hold on these sites, history has shown us that they’re more likely than not going to be developed or redeveloped as commercial sites.”

This is one of the reasons why McKeown said he supported the temporary prohibition on non-residential development. “What we’re doing by voting on this interim zoning ordinance, which I must stress is temporary… is giving ourselves the ability to better protect our residents against displacement,” he said, adding every parcel of land the City doesn’t allow itself to look at as part of the housing element is a threat to displacement and gentrification,” he said.

However, after a number of public comments and a back-and-forth discussion between Council this week, it was unanimously decided that auto dealerships would be exempt from the ordinance.

Councilmember Gleam Davis, who made a substitute motion that passed instead of McKeown’s, noted a site doesn’t have to be on the city’s SSI in order for housing to be built on the parcel.

Though there was some confusion on the status of a Tesla project that was recently approved by Planning Commissioners, staff clarified the site on the north side of Santa Monica Blvd. between 14th and 15th is included in the temporary hold on commercial projects. Other parcels along Santa Monica Boulevard where auto dealerships are already established are excluded from the hold.

The motion, which was seconded by Councilmember Phil Brock, passed unanimously shortly after McKeown voiced his own support for the amended ordinance.

“Keeping our residential use options temporarily open on commercial sites like this one will reduce Housing Element pressure on existing neighborhoods and occupied housing,” McKeown said. “Our priority has to be avoiding resident displacement, and it’s already our policy for the last ten years to put new housing along commercial corridors.”