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At its March 28 meeting, the Santa Monica City Council adopted an interim ordinance governing car dealerships that loosens some of the restrictions that these businesses have been struggling with.  This action comes at a time of continuing reassessment and change in the structure of the retail automotive industry in this city.

In May 2005, Sonic Automotive, a Fortune 300 company that is among the largest automotive retailers in the United States, acquired substantially all of the assets of W. I. Simonson, Inc., the Santa Monica Mercedes-Benz dealer.  Today, there are indications that Sonic may also be acquiring the Santa Monica Subaru, Lincoln-Mercury and Mazda dealerships of the Kramer organization at 1229 Santa Monica Boulevard.

Meanwhile, the local Sullivan Automotive Group has grown from a 1964 VW dealership in Santa Monica to operate Lexus, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Scion dealerships in the city (and others elsewhere), as well as the Volkswagen agency still in its original location.  Mike Sullivan, also known as LA Car Guy, said that he thought the March 28 City Council meeting was “the best meeting [he] had ever been to” in Santa Monica, and that it left him feeling that the City would “sort of like to retain us,” referring to the retail automobile industry.  That industry has been in Santa Monica for many years.

Simonson Mercedes is an established part of the Santa Monica business community.  It is ranked 8th among the largest new-auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area by the 2006 Book of Lists published by the Los Angeles Business Journal (based upon 2004 revenues).  The Simonson family – beginning with founder Bill Simonson, who died in 1976, and including his daughter Mary Simonson Rehwald, who passed away in 2002, and her three children, Judy Rehwald Richards, Francie Rehwald and Bill Rehwald — owned the business since 1937, making it the oldest automotive family firm in Santa Monica after its acquisition of the Santa Monica Dodge franchise from the Parr family in 2000. 

Sonic Automotive, which acquired Simonson Mercedes, is based in Charlotte, North Carolina and operates 176 dealership franchises at 152 locations and 38 collision repair centers in 15 states, including Volvo of Santa Monica and Honda of Santa Monica.  Kelly Snyder, who continues in sales at Simonson after more than five years there, said that there had been “no outward effects” of the Sonic acquisition and that he was pleased to be with the new company.

Mike Sullivan’s father, “Sully,” opened a VW dealership in Santa Monica in 1964 at 2440 Santa Monica Boulevard.  “I was 11 years old at the time,” says the LA Car Guy, who took over the Volkswagen agency in 1975, added a Lexus dealership in 1989, and went on to further growth from there.

Adjusting to the changing realities of doing business in Santa Monica, including the cost and development trends in real estate, Sullivan acquired Post Office property at 11th Street and Colorado Avenue five years ago, and his Lexus dealership will be opening a new parts and service facility at that location this coming August, in the same vicinity as the recently opened Simonson Mercedes parts and service department at 14th Street and Colorado Avenue.

Sullivan thought that the City Council action in opening M1-zoned manufacturing property to auto dealers was a welcome development, and one that he hoped would also be welcomed by Santa Monica residential interests that have often been at odds with car dealers over permitted uses along and adjacent to Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards.  The Santa Monica M1 property is still too expensive for storage of inventory autos, he said, and the solution to that continuing problem will have to be found elsewhere.  The interim ordinance represents an effort to “meet somewhere in the middle,” thought Sullivan, so that everyone could now work for the future.

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