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Three Projects Add 200 Units to Main

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 4 -- Near the north end of Main Street, strollers often break their stride to view a canyon-like tear in the earth teeming with workers busily laying the groundwork for a 107-unit apartment building.

Across the street, the same developer is digging dirt for another 26 units, while a few blocks down, the city's largest affordable housing developer is set to begin construction on a 44-unit project that will be home to several dozen low-income families.

Near the Venice border of the popular commercial strip, the frame for 23 spacious units likely to fetch top market rates is quickly rising.

In one fell swoop, the three projects will add 200 new residential units with nearly 27,000 square feet of ground floor retail to the trendy commercial strip lined with coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques.

Main And Bicknell East (Drawings Courtesy of Architect Howard Laks)
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The trend comes on the heels of a City plan that has encouraged developers to turn Downtown Santa Monica into an area where people don't just shop, but live as well.

"From a commercial point view, we can't see a down side to it," said Gary Gordon, executive director and spokesperson for the newly renamed Main Street Business Improvement Association.

"I think that generally everyone will be happy with more retail and the increase in foot traffic," said Gordon, adding that Main Street has seen its share of tough economic times in the past, especially in the stretch north of Ocean Park Boulevard.

"It won't feel like there's such a dead zone there," Gordon said, referring to the two projects that will add a total of 177 units south of Pico Boulevard.

The largest project being built -- a four-story structure with 107 market-rate units covering 136,694 square feet on the old Boulangerie site and a three-story building with 26 units covering 34,839 square feet across Main Street -- could help revitalize the struggling zone, Gordon said.

Already, the recently opened Urth Café is providing a glimpse into what life might be like on north Main Street with more shops and shoppers, he said.

"Urth café is bustling," Gordon said. "I've heard it's bringing in not only people from the neighborhood, but people over from Brentwood. Its busy, and acting as a connector."

Merchants hope the 290 and 87 parking spaces currently under construction for the two locations straddling Main Street will herald the arrival of hundreds of future tenants who will exchange hellos in the mornings and evenings as they make their way to and from work.

Local architect Howard Laks -- whose firm designed the project -- expects the housing and retail to add the "missing link" that will connect Third Street Promenade and the Civic Center with the boutiques, retail, bars and restaurants south of Ocean Park Boulevard.

"Right now that link does not exist," said Laks, adding that the project will increase pedestrian activity. "In fact, that whole area has really been neglected.

"Its going to breathe life into Main Street, Laks said. "It is going to bring vitality to the area between Ocean Park and Pico boulevards."

Architect Herb Katz, whose company RTK is building 23 units -- each averaging between 1,200 and 1,400 square feet -- at the south end of Main near Marine Street, said the influx of housing and businesses will benefit the area.

"Downtown Main Street could use the lift," said Katz, who sits on the City Council. "I've seen the area come up slowly. The increased housing will help it become more of a center, give the area a night life and a day life to it."

All but three units in Katz's project will be loft style, with two set aside as affordable and one as a penthouse.

Some civic leaders worry that the two market-rate projects -- which will likely fetch high rents -- will accelerate the influx of well-heeled residents to once-funky Ocean Park.

While the Boulangerie project north of Ocean Park Boulevard and the smaller project near the Venice border will "activate the street with people walking to neighborhood businesses," they will also further gentrify the area, said Michael Feinstein, a former mayor who has lived in the neighborhood since 1984.

"The challenge now is how this will affect Alex's shoe repair," said Feinstein, referring to one of several small businesses in the area.

"My fear now is that people like Alex would be gentrified off the block and replaced with another café, something we already have enough of," Feinstein said.

Main Street merchants also worry about how the new projects will affect the mix of stores on the street.

"A lot of people have expressed their opinions about what types of shops should come in," Gordon said.

Merchants have suggested a wide array of stores they feel the area needs, including a pharmacy, a sporting goods shop, a music store or another book store, although Gordon acknowledged that not all of those may be "economically viable."

Clothing stores, home furnishing stores, salons and restaurants have all proved successful as more affluent customers move into the Ocean Park area, Gordon said.

"The demographics of Ocean Park is changing and has been for several years," said Gordon, noting that the change may have been spurred by the dot-com boom of the 1990s.

"We began noticing a different group of people coming into the shops, moving it up a notch in the income bracket," Gordon said.

Whether the shift is a good or a bad thing is a "philosophical discussion," he said.

"There are differences of opinion about what is better," said Gordon. "I have friends from Ocean Park who don't want another brick in the area and others who say development is great."

"Some people on Main Street hope it's as ritzy as Montana (Avenue), and other prefer a little bit of funkiness," Gordon said.

Feinstein said he weighed the need for new residential units as dictated by State law with the Boulangerie project's size and lack of affordable housing before casting the deciding vote to approve the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

"I loved living here in the 1980s, with Santa Monica being a sleepy beach town, but time doesn't stand still," said Feinstein. "And to the extent the State requires us to allow for growth, we've tried to be as sensible and compatible as the law allows, and that's not always easy."

Although the housing boom along Main Street seems to have occurred overnight, in reality, the Boulangerie project and the 44-unit low income complex being built by the local non-profit, Community Corporation, have taken years to come to fruition, Feinstein said.

"There was actually years of agony to get this thing built," Feinstein said of the Boulangerie project. "This was a long process finally coming to culmination."

The development finally broke ground after a debate over whether the project should feature offices or housing, a lawsuit charging the City with dragging its feet on the EIR and a lengthy public process that included a second council vote after conflicting reviews by the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission.

"We are a job-rich, housing-poor community," said Feinstein, noting that the developer took the extra steps to insure the project included housing, which he said would be better for the community.

Not all the units going up on Main Street are high end. Community Corporation is beginning construction of a 44-unit affordable housing project on Pacific Street that will house mostly low-income families.

The 27,046-square-foot project -- with some apartments having three and four bedrooms -- was redesigned to break up the façade by adding articulation, toning down the colors and adding more than 1,700 square feet of retail space to enhance pedestrian activity along Main Street, which City codes didn't require.

To address community concerns about height, density, and aesthetics, five units were eliminated completely, while three one-bedroom units were moved from Main Street to Pacific Street, and the height was kept under the allowed maximum on both sides of the street.

Tenant walkways on the upper floors were relocated to the Main Street side (pushing back the façade five feet), and the width of the pedestrian passageway on Main Street was reduced from 21 to five feet.

"We've done our best to accommodate the neighbors' concerns about design," Community Corp's Executive Director Joan Ling said when the project was given final approval a year and a half ago.

"I hope neighbors that have expressed opposition will realize that the neighborhood is not just about buildings but the people there, and will welcome them to the neighborhood and bring a peach cobbler," Planning Commissioner Terry O'Day said at the commission hearing in September 2003.

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