Hotel: The hotel lost its bid to open a public restaurant as a majority vote was needed to approve the appeal. Clara Harter

Caught in the classic City Council quandary of business development vs neighborhood preservation, the Oceana Hotel narrowly lost its appeal to open its restaurant to the general public.

The request, though seemingly straightforward, has been the subject of fraught and factious discussion among residents, Planning Commissioners and City Council Members.

Planning Commissioners failed to support the proposal in a 3-3 vote in June. The Oceana appealed the decision to City Council and it again failed to pass by a 3-3 vote following strongly divided public comments and a long debate by Councilmembers.

The Oceana Hotel is located in an R2 and R3 zoning district, where hotels are not a permitted land use. Because the hotel was built in 1958 before this zoning requirement was in place, it is allowed to continue operating, but is only allowed to offer food and beverage services to guests.

The hotel would like to open its restaurant to the general public, without increasing its size or capacity, to increase its economic viability and become a neighborhood eatery.

Those in support of expanding the restaurant’s clientele, believe it would help the business and add a valuable new walking distance restaurant for residents. Those opposed feel the expansion would impinge upon the relative peace, quiet and low congestion rates enjoyed by residents, while creating a precedent for other businesses to seek expanded commercial uses in residentially zoned neighborhoods.

Councilmember Lana Negrete was one of the strongest proponents of the Oceana Hotel’s proposal, citing the need to support local businesses.

“As a small business owner myself, the more we put a chokehold on people for things like this, and the more we exclude our community in a post pandemic world, I think we’re doing ourself harm,” said Negrete.

Councilmember Phil Brock initially positioned himself as a proponent of opening the restaurant to the public, saying that as resident of the neighborhood, he would appreciate having another local restaurant because most nearby dining options require getting in the car.

“The ability to walk to a restaurant to me brings the community into the fold and makes it not exclusive, but rather inclusive,” said Brock, adding that while he generally opposes neighborhood densification he doesn’t believe opening the restaurant to the public would create negative impacts.

Brock was, however, swayed and conflicted by the voices of the Wilmont and NOMA neighborhood associations, which both opposed opening the restaurant to the public. He waffled during the voting process initially casting a yes vote, then a no vote and then changing back to yes.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre was also conflicted and requested to take a break in the middle of voting, which was denied. He then drew criticism from Mayor Sue Himmelrich for speaking with Brock off microphone during the vote.

“I was attempting to clarify the process. I was surprised to learn it would take multiple votes so it was a bit confusing. I needed more time to understand how the issues residents raised could be mitigated,” said de la Torre, when asked about the subject of the side conversation.

De la Torre ultimately cast the deciding no vote, following no votes from Councilmember Christine Parra and Himmelrich. The motion failed with a 3-3 vote as Councilmember Gleam Davis was absent and a majority was required to pass it.

“I just want to say that I have nothing against this project and if we could have done it without a text amendment I probably would have voted for it, but I basically am opposed to text amendments,” said Himmelrich.

Opening up the restaurant to the general public would require a text amendment to the Santa Monica Municipal Code, because of the hotel’s status as a legal non-conforming use within its zoning regulations. While the text amendment as proposed would not allow any other businesses to alter their uses, Himmelrich said she believes text amendments are a slippery slope towards expanding intensification of uses in residential areas.