By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. October 24, 2022

There’s great concern in the community about the large development proposed for the southeast corner of Lincoln and Ocean Park Boulevards. It’s a big site — 4.7 acres — and at 955,120 square feet, it’s a BIG project. Part of the community concern is size. But there’s also incredulity over the loss of local control to affect the project, owing to recent changes in state law.

But don’t blame the state legislature, governor or developers for the loss. The fault lies right here in Santa Monica, with the folks who thought they could say “No” to everything forever and not suffer any consequences.

Currently the site is occupied by a Gelson’s supermarket, a large surface parking lot, a restaurant and assorted small retail. But that kind of suburban, auto-oriented development model is being abandoned all over the country. In a city that faces intense densification pressures like Santa Monica, and in a state with a major housing shortage, the so-called “Gelson’s site” was not going to remain that way forever.

In 2015, zoning was proposed for the site that would have given the community great voice and leverage in what might get built there next, based upon the site’s designation as an “activity center” in the City’s 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE). 

But the threat of a referendum loomed on approval of the City’s 2015 Zoning Ordinance by the same Residocracy folks that stopped the proposed Bergamot Transit Village project on Olympic Bl/26th Street the year before — unless a substantial down-zoning occurred. A successful referendum against the Zoning Ordinance would have gutted more than a decade of work since a major update of the City’s General Plan began in late 2004. Already without zoning to implement the 2010 LUCE, almost every project of any size at the time had to come before the Planning Commission and City Council as individually negotiated development agreements, creating a backlog of over 40 projects, displacing other necessary items from City agendas. 

In response, the Council voted to remove the “activity center” designation for that site and three others in the Zoning Ordinance, along with removing the entire Tier 3 option across the city for greater development rights in exchange for negotiated community benefits in select commercial zones. 

The result? The default zoning for the Lincoln and Ocean Park Boulevard site became subject to new state laws that stripped away local control and allowed larger development than would otherwise be permitted.

Ironically — and seemingly without self-awareness — many of the same people who pressured the Council to down-zone in 2015 are today objecting most strenuously to what is now a far larger and less architecturally interesting by-right project on this site than would have been built under the activity center zoning.

How did Santa Monica lose local control?

Santa Monica’s LUCE establishes the City’s land use, urban design and transportation vision. The Zoning Update then translates these land use policies into standards that implement the goals and objectives of the LUCE on a daily basis.  

“Activity centers” were to provide for creative, integrated planning to create focal points of community in a limited numbers of areas well-served by transit, “that can support a coordinated transportation demand management strategy and include local-serving uses such as a grocery store, drug store, neighborhood retail uses, small floor plate offices, a mix of housing types and shared parking.” The unique sloping and hollowed out topography of the southeast corner of Lincoln and Ocean Park provided an opportunity for great flexibility in design and made this a particularly attractive site for such an approach.

But two years after the activity center zoning was removed, the state legislature passed amendments to the state’s Housing Accountability Act that strictly limited local governments’ authority to reject or restrict housing development projects. In response, Santa Monica passed an Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance to Streamline Housing Production, eliminating public hearings on most housing projects, as the City no longer had discretion to meaningfully affect them. Then the state passed SB 330 and AB 2345 in 2021, which increased the size of by-right density bonuses to 50% for projects that included baseline levels of affordable housing.

What we are getting

Based upon these new laws, the Lincoln Center project at Lincoln and Ocean Park contains 521 residential apartments (17% studios, 44% one-bedrooms and 39% two bedrooms), including 53 on-site very-low income affordable units; as well as 36,000 square feet of street-fronting neighborhood-serving retail/restaurant space including a grocery store, and approximately 880 vehicular parking spaces and 816 total bicycle parking spaces. 

All of this is spread over 10 five-story buildings, with heights ranging between 60 and 65 feet. Architecturally, the project fails to meaningfully relate to the unique orientation of the site. Instead, imagine a giant shopping cart equal to the length and width of the site, filled with 10 five-story containers. That’s what we are getting here. 

What if the starting point was a world class design that fit into the sloping terrain?

If the site had stayed an activity center, the City could’ve insisted on a series of public benefits like a public plaza and extraordinary architectural design. Think of the village of Oia on the Greek island of Santorini or Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado as inspirations for how to build into a slope.

Because of the site’s topography, one could build five stories of needed housing at the back (east) side of the parcel, without building any higher than the apartment buildings already at the top of the hill. The project could then creatively slope down toward Lincoln, have great public spaces below — and be visually open and inviting to southbound traffic on Lincoln at Ocean Park, and eastbound traffic on Ocean Park at Lincoln. 

This would have meant somewhat less needed housing, but resulted in a far more interesting landmark project for such an important intersection. Besides, one site isn’t going to solve the state’s housing crisis, nor should it be expected to do so.

Speaking of housing, one can reasonably anticipate that in the future, a great deal of additional housing will be built along Lincoln Boulevard. At the same time, Santa Monica has adopted a long term Lincoln Neighborhood Corridor Plan to combine enhanced pedestrian orientation, promote small business and facilitate traffic flow along Lincoln. While Lincoln Center does have a mid-block public open space in between ground floor retail, it is nothing compared to a site defining, transit-center-oriented public plaza that would have drawn more future residents to walk or take transit and gather there, better knitting the new linear neighborhood together.

Painful lessons learned? Or not?

In November 2020, Santa Monica voters experimented by electing first time councilmembers that seem to share the Residocracy “just say no” world view, on a de facto “Make Santa Monica Great Again” platform that appeared to turn a blind eye to the realities of an ever changing world. Now the founder of Residocracy is running for City Council to join them.

But Santa Monica doesn’t live on a legal island. Faced with their first major land use decision, the new City Council majority failed miserably and categorically — either by failing to read their staff reports and/or not heeding legal advice from City staff about the consequences of not submitting a legally compliant Housing Element to the state — apparently because those councilmembers opposed zoning to allow the extraordinary amount of new state mandated housing for Santa Monica. 

The result? When a city does not have a legally compliant Housing Element by the required deadline — as Santa Monica did not — property owners can utilize a “builder’s remedy” under state law to submit projects that ignore local density and height limits, as long as the projects include a given amount of affordable housing. Sixteen such projects have gained by-right approval via this process — nine between 10 and 15 stories high — blowing away the City’s height limits and decades of community activism. 

The City Council majority’s gross malfeasance and incompetence in this matter is staggering. Just as we are finding with our democracy, our quality of life is fragile. Electing the wrong leadership can send us down a rabbit hole that is hard to climb out of. In this November’s City Council election, residents have some sober decisions to make.

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Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein.

‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.