Santa Monica has long touted its credentials as a “green” city, always in earnest pursuit of solutions to ongoing environmental problems. Back in 2017 the City introduced the Electric Vehicle Action Plan. The intent was to triple the number of electric-car charging stations within 36 months. The idea was to help apartment-dwellers have more opportunities to charge their electric vehicles. It has been difficult and costly to install charging stations in apartment buildings, and this has deterred residents from switching to electric cars.
The new plan has been slowed by the city’s budget woes and the pandemic. Still, the city moved ahead with a reduced plan to install public chargers–relatively slow,” level-2″ devices, throughout the city. There are about 200 of those slower chargers around the city now.
Along comes Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, with a plan to expand the number of rapid chargers in our town. Their concept: a large charging facility similar to an electric “gas station,” largely powered by solar panels. The company studied the city and settled on a pair of empty lots at 14th and Santa Monica Boulevard for their project. The lots are located in a very useful spot–close enough to provide quick service to the many folks living in nearby multifamily buildings. Their engineers developed a plan to install 62 rapid-charge ports that could fill batteries in minutes instead of hours. Then Tesla moved on to the final step: getting a permit.
To get the project approved, Tesla had to apply for a Conditional Use Permit. The company worked with Planning Department staff for months to prepare the permit application. With cooperation from the Planning Department and the city’s decades-long interest to help renters switch from gasoline cars, Tesla had every reason to assume their project would be approved by the Commission. At the Planning Commission’s meeting on March 3, two commissioners opposed the project for not including housing, but it sailed through with no final objections from other commissioners. The company moved quickly through to the final step: approval by City Council.
And that’s where they ran into the housing buzzsaw.
First, a bit of context. The Santa Monica City Council has been grappling with the impact of a requirement, by the Southern California Association of Governments, to build–not permit–nearly 9,000 new housing units within city limits in the next 8 years. That number is roughly equal to two Park LaBrea projects. The city has said that it prefers housing close to transit, and especially along the major boulevards. To keep commercial projects from sites that could include housing, it proposed a moratorium on nearly all non-housing projects on commercially-zoned properties around the city. At the March 9th meeting, this past week, the City Council approved a temporary law that would ban outright any project on commercial lots that does not include housing (with some exceptions). The interim ordinance would last 45 days and then be revisited, extended, or replaced by new zoning code changes.
As expected, the measure raised hackles in the business community, and the Council quickly agreed to exempt all car dealerships along that stretch of road. But what of the Tesla project? The charging superstation would be a commercial project on a commercial property along a major boulevard–with no housing. But it had already been approved by the Planning Commission just a few days earlier, so it was safe. Or at least, so the Planning Department staff assumed at first, when they recommended to City Council that projects already in the approval “pipeline” be allowed to move ahead.
During the City Council meeting last week, Councilmember McKeown opposed the project. He said that its location, on Santa Monica Boulevard, is especially suitable for housing. The Tesla project, he said, would prevent a housing project from being built there for the duration of Tesla’s lease on the land. The Councilmember asked whether the list of banned projects on commercial properties could be expanded to include those–such as the Tesla Supercharger Station– that were already in the process of being approved.
Staff replied that the Planning Commission’s approval of the Tesla Supercharger wasn’t quite final just yet, because the two-week period during which the public could appeal the project wasn’t over. The Tesla project could be stopped by the moratorium.
And in a flash, the project came to an end.
The message was crystal clear. If Tesla intends to proceed, it will only receive approval if it is combined with a housing project. The property’s owner, a local car dealer, is said to be opposed to building housing on his two lots. But the commercial-project moratorium, which Councilmember Davis said may be extended for years, leaves him without the opportunity to use the site commercially. What’s more, the arrival of mass electrification will soon force the automobile industry to change its business model, because much of their profit comes from maintenance services, compared to sales. Electric cars require far less maintenance. That’s a looming factor for all car dealers.
Today those two lots remain empty, paved over and desolate, dry weeds blowing across the broken pavement. Still, in a time of rapid change for car dealers, cities, and apartment dwellers–an opportunity beckons. If the city really wants to place housing on this site and help residents switch away from gasoline cars, it has a shot at doing both. There is no need to overbuild, nor should the city let the empty lots languish. Instead, it can encourage and incentivize a new kind of building that would combine housing with car charging. It would be a unique and prestigious project.
So far there is no movement. In this writer’s view, all parties need a swift kick in the hindside to bring them together and create something new. It is to everyone’s benefit to come together and develop a new kind of urban building. Someone with pull needs to convene a meeting with all the parties and make them realize that they would all benefit; the city, residents, the property owner, and Tesla.
Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire Life Safety Commission
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.