Council preserved a controversial proposal to allow denser development along Santa Monica’s traditionally commercial streets at their last meeting and despite a contentious debate with name calling on all sides, the council did come together to unanimously ask state regulators if they can repeal the rules at a later date.

Every eight years, the State assigns a quota of housing units that regional governments should plan for. Individual cities are not required to build any units themselves, but they must create zoning rules that would allow private developers to build up to the assigned number of units if they choose to.

In the current cycle, Santa Monica has been assigned 8,874 new housing units, 69% of which must be at various affordable income levels. The new figures dwarf the previous allocation of 1,674 units and the city failed to adopt a compliant housing element by the state imposed deadline. That failure allowed more than 4,000 housing units to enter the development pipeline virtually unopposed before the City finalized a compliant plan. In order to retain control over additional development, the City has to implement various policy changes as proposed in the Housing Element by predetermined deadlines and by October of this year, several programs pertaining to rezoning for housing must be complete.

Santa Monica’s document, which has already been accepted by the State, calls for increased development opportunities along Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zones that include portions of Montana, Main Street, Ocean Park Blvd. and Pico Blvd. that would create housing above ground floor retail.

The proposal has drawn strong criticism in recent weeks from the Planning Commission and some residents who fear it would endanger small businesses along those streets. However, the rules are already approved by state regulators which means altering the Housing Element could knock the city out of compliance and open the door for more uncontrolled development.

During the debate, staff said simply asking state regulators if an amendment is acceptable would not trigger any compliance reviews or problems.

Councilwoman Lana Negrete said that as the consequences of simply asking were low, the council should at least see if any alternatives were available.

“First of all, we have to stop the gaslighting of making the assumption that there’s certain council members that are trying to put us out of compliance that is not happening,” she said. “We’re simply saying you know what, after further consideration, by upzoning those neighborhood commercial zones, we’re actually eliminating entry level businesses and affordability for not only those entrepreneurs, but for the community around it.”

Some councilmembers said the fears of upzoning were overblown as other economic factors would limit when and how development could occur in the commercial zones.

“I think there’s a little fear mongering going on here if you want my honest opinion,” said Mayor Gleam Davis. “I think this notion that somehow upzoning the neighborhood commercial is going to wipe out every business on Maine, Montana motion card, and Pico is really an overreaction.”

Despite the differing opinions, the council did authorize staff to seek clarification on the concept of an amendment. The first question will be if state authorities will even consider an amendment. If they would, the city will have to identify other areas where development can occur and some, including the possibility of densifying residential neighborhoods, may be less palatable than the existing rules.

Councilman Oscar de la Torre suggested a temporary suspension of the NC rules through the State deadline of October 15 while the city sought clarity on its options. However, that plan was abandoned as State laws superseding local control would allow developers to ignore the suspension and the city would be forced to comply with the already approved Housing Element regardless.

Many of the properties impacted are small lots that are ill-suited to densification and Council did express support for additional rules that would discourage potential developments from creating more suitably sized parcels. Staff said new prohibitions on combining those lots and limiting the infrastructure improvements on streets would likely limit the feasibility of some construction in the commercial zones.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...