March 5, 2021 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMa.r.t. Column: Saving a Failed Marriage – Part 1

After several decades of wedlock and blind pursuit, our Santa Monica City Council finds itself in a failed marriage with the development community – succumbing to developers’ need and greed, to increased heights, densities and rents, in exchange for a modest amount of “inclusionary housing.” Only 8% of this increased housing qualifies as “affordable” while bringing with this housing the problems of infrastructure and the increasing loss of our city’s character.

And now the state is requiring us to proceed under economic penalty with yet another 8,900 units in the next 8 years – 6,700 of which are to be “affordable.”  This would be a 20% increase in population coupled with a 20% increase in infrastructure – water, power and sewage, fire and police, schools and libraries, etc. – all of which to be paid for not by developers or by our nearly bankrupt city or by the state – but by the residents!  As in any failing marriage, is the goal sustainability or infinite dysfunction?  Adherence to this housing element of infinite growth promises to be the end of Santa Monica as we know it!

At an early December council meeting, it was encouraging to see Councilmember McKeown seeming to realize inclusionary housing was not working in achieving a more balanced housing inventory, and hopefully is open to reconsidering alternatives.  Inclusionary housing combines low rent units in buildings together with market rate units.  But Santa Monica’s goal of 30% has only produced 8%, and this 8% reverts to market rate at the end of a 55 year cycle.  Additionally, the “inclusion” of affordable units with market rate units only serves to increase housing costs and rents for the other market rate units including workforce housing.  How has this worthy goal of building affordable housing led us so far astray?  Where has our city council been during the past two decades of dense building while succumbing to the development community?

This unsuccessful marriage of our city council lusting for affordable housing and the development community lusting for more density and height comes at the expense of our residents and the indigenous character of our beachfront environment.  The developer’s dream has become our economic, environmental, and social nightmare – facing huge budget and pension problems, traffic and infrastructure dead-ends, council in-fighting, and on and on!  Simply put, the current approach to providing affordable housing has not, will not, and cannot work with any reasonable degree of success.  Unfortunately, past city councils didn’t have the vision to see this runaway train.

This week’s and next week’s articles will deal with these housing requirements – this week with the “inclusionary” housing dilemma, and next week with the pressure to “up-zone” our beachfront city – having increased current 4, 6, 8, and 10 story height limits just 3 years ago and now yet again?

We need to rethink how we produce affordable housing.  Adding 8%, or even 30% inclusionary housing to every new project will never meet the need.  And there’s no city or state money to subsidize inclusionary housing.  On the other hand, Santa Monica is the largest landowner in the city – by last count 177 parcels ranging in size from .17 acres to multiple acreage in all parts of the city.  For example, using 12% of the BBB surface parking lot at the corner of 7th & Colorado, and 500 feet from the freeway and adjacent to other low rise residential and commercial buildings, could produce +/- 130 units in 2, 3 & 4 story staggered designs, and can achieve net zero efficiency.  There are similar sites at the parking lot at 2nd & Santa Monica and the Colorado frontage of Memorial Park, etc.  And this approach would maintain our city’s low to mid-rise character with far better designs than the facadomy of block apartment buildings we’re seeing all over the downtown area.  When you remove the added cost to the developer for inclusionary housing, you also remove the economic excuse resulting in monolithic block design. Moreover, these garden apartment designs would continue the long history of courtyard housing in Santa Monica.  

There would be no land cost, no land financing or carry cost, no property tax or permitting costs, savings in low-rise construction costs, and no return-on-investment – all adding up to 30% or more of reduced market rents.  A one-bedroom apartment renting for $2,500-3,000/month would be $1,750-2,100/month.

Moreover, development of affordable housing on public land allows the possibility of future ownership of one’s apartment.  With the city owning the land and using their credit to borrow design and construction monies – to be paid back over 20 years with rental income – tenants can become “owners in waiting.”  But this is for a later discussion, let’s not complicate the immediate issue.

Realizing the city has become a cash cow for the development community, our response to the housing element will go a long way toward shaping the future of our city in creating the place where we live, work, and play. Santa Monica will always attract developers large and small. The success of this marriage will be maintaining Santa Monica’s character and identity, a low rise city of landscape and courtyards, and its relaxed beach culture.

To clarify, this approach to affordability isn’t to suggest that we have infinite possibility in adding affordable housing, but it does suggest that we have long been in need of an overall master plan.  Not a downtown plan or a gateway plan, not a general plan or a zoning ordinance, but a comprehensive plan where the housing element is only one of several coordinated studies looking at our infrastructure and transportation systems, cultural and institutional elements, commercial and industrial segments, healthcare and city services, residential districts, open space and our economy.  Our penchant for piecemeal planning and development agreements have aided the development community for far too long!  We need to look at this city as a whole system.  An overall master plan is long, long overdue!!

Stay tuned next week when Part 2 discusses the unnecessary lunacy of “upzoning.”

Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t.

(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville CPA Inactive, Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing 

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