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City Council Begins Clearing Path for Nearly 9,000 New Housing Units

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

March 12, 2020 -- In what one Council member characterized as "taking baby steps," the City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to allow most large housing projects to be approved by planning staff effective immediately.

The emergency interim ordinance and related zoning amendments comprise the first step in an effort to meet the State-mandated goal of building 8,874 new housing units, two-thirds of them affordable, over the next eight years.

But Council members and staff agreed additional measures will be needed when the interim ordinance expires in 60 days if the City hopes to increase the number of permits it issues from an average of 200 a year to 1,100 to meet that goal.

"I just feel the grass is growing under our feet," said Mayor Pro Tem Terry O'Day. "We should be pushing the envelope, and I just feel we're taking baby steps.

"This is pretty minor stuff," O'Day said of the Council's actions Tuesday. "We have a (housing) crisis, and we want to make some progress.

"How can we move faster?" he asked planning staff.

Tuesday's actions allow Administrative Approval (AA) of all 100 percent affordable housing projects and many market-rate projects between 30,000 and 75,000 square feet ("Council Could Immediately Streamline Permit Process to Spur Housing Development," March 5, 2020).

Previously those housing projects -- except for 100 percent affordable projects with fewer than 50 units -- required a Development Review Permit (DRP) approved by the Planning Commission at a public hearing.

Streamlining the process, said Mayor Kevin McKeown, will make it "easier and faster" to build housing along the boulevards outside of neighborhoods protected by the City's zoning ordinance.

"Our state is suffering from a housing crisis, and Santa Monica is committed to being part of the solution,” McKeown said in a statement after the meeting.

The mayor's position, which was echoed by his colleagues from the dais, has alarmed neighborhood groups who called the housing targets set by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) "delusional."

In a letter sent Tuesday morning, the leaders of nine community groups urged the Council to appeal Santa Monica's Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) target ("Community Groups Urge Santa Monica Council to Reject Housing Targets," March 10, 2020).

"The problem is where within our already built-out City we could possibly build this magnitude of affordable housing?" the groups asked.

"And how could it be built without massive subsidies; subsidies that don’t exist?"

City Planning staff said it will start identifying sites and begin modeling potential projects as part of a process that will lead to a certified housing element early next year.

"This is phase one," City Planning Manager Jing Yeo told the Council.

Yeo called Tuesday's actions "quick hits" and said additional measures would be presented to the Council April 28, when the interim ordinance is expected to be amended and extended for one year.

One of the potential amendments would no longer require Tier 3 housing projects Downtown -- which are between 75,000 and 90,000 square feet -- to be approved under a Development Agreement (DA) with the Council, a lengthy process that includes negotiating community benefits.

Instead the projects would require a DRP from the Planning Commission.

Dave Rand, a land use attorney for several Santa Monica developers, said Tier 3 projects that meet the zoning standards must be legally approved anyway, making the DA process a waste of time.

"Why should developers go through that long extended process when (a project) can be built faster, cheaper and come on line sooner," RAND said.

Under the current requirements, Rand said, developers must go before the current "groundhog" Planning Commission where a recent project he represented "came out the way we proposed it" after nearly a year and a half of hearings.

Chris Harding, a prominent land use attorney who represents the Santa Monica Housing Council, urged the City to take a number of additional steps to further fast-track housing development.

In a letter, the group, which is not affiliated with the City, urged the Council to increase heights and densities for housing projects and consider "potential tax measures" to fund affordable units.

He also echoed Rand's call to eliminate DA's for Tier 3 housing projects Downtown, an incentive O'Day unsuccessfully lobbied to include in Tuesday's actions.

The Council addressed concerns that large projects would be approved without the current public hearings by requiring developers to conduct a community meeting on a proposal before it is submitted.

Staff also noted that the projects covered by Tuesday's emergency ordinance and zoning amendments would continue to be reviewed by the Architectural Review Board (ARB).

The ARB's role, however, is restricted to design issues.

The streamlined process applies to any AA applications filed after March 10, the date the emergency interim ordinance went into effect upon approval.

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