What is in a move? Well, for Sunset Park residents, the relocation of Common Ground to their community from another nearby Santa Monica locale is cause for great concern. On Monday night, more than 50 Sunset Park residents filled an Olympic High School community room to meet with local officials to express concern over the arrival of the non-profit HIV community center.
Among those from City Hall who attended were Mayor Richard Bloom, Council member Terry O’Day, members of city staff, and officers of the Santa Monica Police Deptartment (SMPD).
While most in attendance were amenable to Common Ground’s mission and purpose, the residents were concerned the non-profit’s move to their neighborhood would result in an influx of crime and other unwanted elements, such as loitering, increased parking, and trash.
SMPD Officer Artis Williams said police dispatch received about 26 phone calls from October 2008 to February 2012, each complaining of some form of nuisance stemming from Common Ground.
One resident specifically stated while he agrees with the philosophy and mission of Common Ground, the non-profit is “creating an environment” of nuisances, and that was why many oppose Common Ground’s move to its new location.
Common Ground, which provides HIV education and opens its doors to at-risk teens and adults, recently signed a lease to move into a new facility near a residential community on Cedar Street and Lincoln Boulevard.
Previously, Common Ground was just a few blocks north on Lincoln Boulevard near Pico Boulevard.
The group’s executive director, Lisa Fisher, said the new facility at 2401 Lincoln Boulevard is expected to be open by the end of February, though the full gamut of services it offers would not be immediately available, but instead phased in over time.
Interestingly enough, Fisher also pointed out that Common Ground would not be providing its needle exchange service at its new location. Many residents in attendance appeared quite concerned about the needle exchange service and some asked whether Fisher would commit to Common Ground halting its needle exchange service permanently, a nuance the executive director did not heed.
The needle exchange service was a hot topic because the program would attract drug addicts, residents said.
Still, Fisher made an effort to establish a rapport with everyone attending the community meeting, telling the audiences “we want to have a dialog, we want to be good neighbors.”
Many had a hard time believing Common Ground was doing enough to be a “good neighbor,” particularly due to many reports of 911 calls, drugs, loitering, and a variety of crimes associated with the non-profit’s previous location a few blocks north.
Fueling concerns over Common Ground’s new location was that it does not have a large parking lot like its predecessor. With strict parking rules in the community immediately surrounding Common Ground, some residents wondered how its clients would arrive to the new facility.
Even more, residents were also concerned about the Common Ground clients smoking outside the building, or the long lines of clients building up in front of the facility, awaiting the non-profit to open its doors at 8:30 a.m.
Yet another concern: the new location is within “a few hundred feet of three preschools.” Another resident pointed out there are also elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools nearby.
Accordingly, many were concerned about the safety of the children nearby. One parent said her children who use Lincoln Boulevard to walk to school have told her they are “scared to death” to be near Common Ground.
When one resident pressed about whether Common Ground kept tabs on whom it served, no one from the non-profit was able to provide any immediate information. Specifically, Common Ground was asked what percentage of its clients were heroin addicts, felons, or alcoholics.
Common Ground also does not keep track of which of its clients are registered sex offenders.
Others questioned whether City Hall would take a more active role in working with Common Ground and attending to the many negative issues surrounding the non-profit’s operation.
The City of Santa Monica is among the many funders of Common Ground. Last year, the city council approved a $94,000 grant to Common Ground, which is only about seven percent of the group’s budget, officials said at the meeting.
Among the questions Zina Josephs asked was how was allowing Common Ground to be so close to three pre-schools not a violation of the City’s goal of “community preservation” via the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE).
“The LUCE has a requirement of community preservation. How does this preserve our neighborhoods?” Josephs asked.
She also read a letter of someone who ran a business near the old Common Ground facility. The letter complained of “used condoms, needles, lots of paper plates, drinking cups, food waste, and just general trash” littering the area immediately surrounding Common Ground.
Both Bloom and other city officials stated Common Ground’s operation at the new location complied with all zoning ordinances. The portion of Lincoln Boulevard where Common Ground is located is zoned for commercial/office use. Even more, Common Ground is viewed by City Hall as an office operation consistent with the zoning ordinance governing the area immediately surrounding Common Ground.
In response to all the concerns presented, both city staff and Common Ground officials attempted to find some sort of path toward resolution.
While no specific resolutions were agreed upon, both the City and Common Ground presented residents with a draft template of a “Good Neighbor Agreement.”
According to the draft template, Common Ground seeks to work collaboratively with surrounding individuals and businesses to “create a peaceful, safe, and beautiful neighborhood” as well as to “share open and honest communications” and “help each other address concerns and solve problems.
According to City Hall’s human services manager, Julie Rusk, the “Good Neighbor Agreement” is currently a work in progress but will also be used to hold organizations such as Common Ground accountable to fulfilling the document’s mission and spirit. Rusk said any group receiving a city grant and using the agreement must show a good faith effort in abiding by it or else jeopardize its funding.
Common Ground moved from its previous location near Lincoln and Pico because its lease had expired, Fisher said. City Hall could not influence Common Ground’s choice for a new location, as it is an independent organization.
Planning Director David Martin said Common Ground’s move into 2401 Lincoln does not violate any zoning ordinances and land-use policies.