Mike Feinstein ignores too many details in his article about the “Lincoln Center” project — the one proposed for the Gelson’s site at the intersection of Ocean Park and Lincoln. The current situation is not residents’ or the Santa Monica City Council’s fault. It is the direct result of overreach by the State, which is imposing a mandate on municipalities that the State Constitution does not sanction — a mandate that ignores the characteristics that make certain communities desirable and that could result in converting Santa Monica into either Miami or Manhattan-by-the-Sea.

The intent of Senate Bill 330 is not to provide more housing. It is to create “affordable” housing, primarily for “very low, low, and moderate income” households. The overwhelming majority of residential construction projects in Santa Monica — those proposed, those under construction, and those already built — are predominantly market-rate units. In one of the costliest housing markets in the country, market-rate units in Santa Monica are not affordable. 

SB330 makes various provisions for local zoning, one of which is that housing projects cannot ignore it. There are built-in exceptions that permit greater height but only for buildings that are 100% affordable. Lincoln Center is not, yet it is designed to be ten feet higher than the allowable maximum. The density bonuses, too, are tied to affordability. However, the minimum 10% is being leveraged to add 50% more units, none of which are required to qualify as affordable. 

Santa Monica is definitely in need of affordable housing — residences that fit the budgets of hotel and restaurant workers, teachers, retail employees, single working parents, and the like. There’s little opposition to that in this basically liberal city. What makes Santa Monica appealing, however, is the scale and the lifestyle characteristics of the city. There are innumerable locations that are under-utilized, ideal for new housing, and unlikely to alter the town’s appeal, but developers aren’t attempting to build there. 

New housing was one of the arguments for the Expo Line. The assumption was that it would attract housing along its route and, particularly, around the line’s stations. However, rather than target sites such as 17th and Colorado or adjacent to Bergamot Station, builders are focused on Lincoln Boulevard and Downtown. Their argument, which helps qualify for bonuses, is that those locations are convenient to mass transit. The Expo Line carries far more passengers than the #3 bus, there is no bus service at all on Lincoln north of Pico, and with 880 parking spots, Lincoln Center is not expecting residents to use public transit. The added traffic at that intersection will contribute to the congestion on Lincoln and increase the likelihood of collisions involving both cars and pedestrians.

The most gargantuan “builders remedy” proposal — for a 15-story structure with more than 4000 units — is sited a block from the Bergamot Station Expo stop. Yet that light industrial area is exclusively one and two story commercial structures. A 15-story residential building will literally block out the sun (as the proposed structure in Downtown would have done in the 1990s if it had been approved), and it will need to provide every residential amenity — supermarket, pharmacy, dry cleaner, etc. — in an area that’s devoid of those businesses. That project is also 80% market rate, but that location isn’t likely to attract upscale tenants.

Ben Allen in the State Senate was not a sponsor of SB330. Richard Bloom, though, was a sponsor of AB2345 which is an even more generous handout to developers. Allen’s running for re-election. Bloom, another former Santa Monica mayor, is not, and that’s a good thing. Bloom has a history of taking credit for things he had nothing to do with, such as the adoption by residents of solar power, and not taking responsibility for things that are not in his constituents’ best interests. Yet Feinstein focuses, through his reference to Residocracy, on Armen Melkonians who began Residocracy, while misrepresenting what Residocracy prevented: the Hines Project on the Papermate site, not the Bergamot Transit Village. That’s not a constructive or accurate perspective.

The developers’ attempt to claim variances and builders remedy permissions is legally insupportable. Though the City did not get approval for its first housing proposal, it did meet the deadline. When the State demanded revisions, it reset the deadline, which the City met. The developers, however, are asserting that, while a new plan was being created, existing regulations suddenly vanished. That is untenable. It is unlikely that a court would find that a regulatory gap was created while new regulations were being negotiated in good faith.

Beyond all this, there is an elephant in the housing room that the State is refusing to acknowledge. As it presses to increase housing units in the hundreds of thousands, it continues to issue warnings about dwindling water and power supplies and asking citizens to reduce their consumption of both. The water is Lake Mead is approaching “dead zone” status — too low to power the hydroelectric dam and, thus, also insufficient to provide water for drinking and bathing and agriculture. This week, the Federal government imposed new restrictions on the Colorado River that will reduce the amount of water available throughout the entire Southwest. You can’t have more housing if there’s not enough water and power for what already exists. And you can’t have more residents if growers don’t have water for the crops that will feed them. Feinstein ignores all of that.

Peter Altschuler

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