The City of Santa Monica owns a lot of land outside the obvious landmarks like City Hall or the Pier. Some of that land is useful — like Santa Monica Airport and Bergamot Station — and some of it is vacant, underutilized or otherwise “mothballed” — like the Civic Auditorium, which has been closed for the last nine years with no end in sight.

In order for underutilized, or “surplus” city-owned property to be renovated, leased or sold for any purpose, the city must first offer it up to be turned into affordable housing, parks and recreation, or schools.

The rule came about due to California’s Surplus Land Act (SLA), signed into law in 2019. According to SLA guidelines, “the purpose of the amendments is to promote affordable housing development on unused or underutilized public land throughout the state to respond to the existing affordable housing crisis.” 

The Civic Auditorium at 1855 Main Street, which has been vacant since 2013, is one of the latest parcels the City would like to see renovated — it is in need of serious seismic improvements — and put back into use. The other two parcels are two adjacent parking lots, both located between 4th and 5th streets south of Colorado near the E Line (Expo) train and platform. 

The smaller of the two lots currently contains several EVgo car chargers and is next door to another property known as the Apple Building at 1635 5th Street, which was designated as surplus land separately last year. The smaller lot is 0.32 acres.

“Last year, the Apple Building was declared surplus but we didn’t declare the parking lot, so this is — we’re here to add the parking lot into this surplus land to basically allow for more opportunities, in this case, to help us as an interim to lease the Apple Building,” Santa Monica Economic Development Manager Jennifer Taylor explained during the Tuesday, Oct. 11, City Council meeting.

The larger of the parking lots, the Expo Line Parking Lot, was primarily used when the E Line (Expo) station was under construction but has sat essentially unused since then. It is 1.09 acres.

Under the SLA, the City must issue a notice of availability to eligible entities (such as other public agencies or eligible housing sponsors) that properties are available. If no such entities express interest in the properties for 60 days, the City can then move forward with other uses.

Of particular concern for council members was the Civic Auditorium, parts of which have been declared a local landmark.

Because of the size of the auditorium — taking up 5,000 square feet on a 3.7-acre site — and the landmarked status, council members were skeptical that an affordable housing project would be interested in using the site. 

Housing providers who sign up to be notified of surplus land opportunities must be given the opportunity to bid on projects at sites listed by the California Department of Housing and Community Development as surplus land under state law.

“If they express interest, then we are required to negotiate with them for 90 days, but it does not mean that we have to sell for less than fair market value, so it still envisions a negotiation process,” Assistant City Attorney Susan Cola said. 

According to Cola, using the Civic Center for housing “made no sense,” but the City was not able to gain any clarity from the HCD despite some attempts.

“Theoretically, it’s to offer the opportunity for a housing provider to come and redevelop the site for housing,” Cola said. “And we did have extensive discussions with HCD, because of course it made no sense, since we were not offering to demolish the site, but we could not get through to HCD. You know, we would have had to go through a negotiation process to actually lay out the specific terms, which of course we could not do, and so that’s why we’re in the situation that we’re in.”

City Attorney Doug Sloan added, “just because we have to offer it for that purpose doesn’t mean we’d have to accept any offer, even if there were one.”

The item passed in a unanimous, 6-0, vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Kirstin McCowan absent from the meeting.