Los Angeles County recently proposed a program providing financial incentives for certain “Legacy” family businesses in their original historical location. They have been facing financial hardships for a variety of reasons like COVID, gentrification, and increasing commercial real estate rents, development, and land values. These are our “mom and pop shops,” and Los Angeles is losing many of these unique and symbolic places which help support and make a part of the Los Angeles community. Does this sound familiar with what is happening here in Santa Monica?
Those financial hardships not only affect “Legacy” businesses but are also deteriorating the fabric of many of our local small businesses and neighborhood communities. Due consideration and support should be given to all qualified small businesses, not just legacy “name-brand” businesses that inspire tourism or have historical value.
There are many contributing factors to this dilemma; but for the moment, let us look at all the new “Mixed Use” developments that are proposed and under construction here in Santa Monica because many small businesses are being displaced as a result. Granted, some of this is the natural progression of healthy economic development and community improvement, but when it chokes out the possibility for many family-run small businesses to remain here and they are forced to close and leave a location and neighborhood they have been serving for many years, even generations, it does the local economy and our reputation no real good as the cost of goods and services have to increase in order to pay new market rents, and it deprives our community of some of the businesses we have grown to love and value.
This is happening all over the country. Small businesses are being pushed out because they are unable to pay the new higher commercial rents in these developments. These include laundromats, cafes, restaurants, daycare centers, gyms, small arts nonprofits, community centers, theaters, beauty parlors, bookstores, and faith-based institutions which contribute to a special and unique neighborhood feel, vision, and identity.
There is much attention and debate over affordable and low-income housing development, and it is overlooked that many of the very developments that are supposed to be providing affordable and low-income housing are eliminating several small businesses that would service and be affordable for those lower-income occupants, or in a best-case scenario relocating them to areas that will usually require more transportation and time to avail themselves of said goods and services.
When all these apartments are built and filled up, where will the lower-income tenants have to go to get certain affordable goods and services? As this gentrification ramps up, many small businesses are disappearing, often replaced by chain stores, banks, or upscale restaurants and supermarkets. Is this what the people of Santa Monica want the vision and direction to be here? Santa Monica needs to better support small family-run businesses in the overall economic spectrum if we are going to continue to push the development of affordable and low-income housing and have a successful and sustainable transformation.
There are no current provisions or protections in our zoning and permitting process for small commercial businesses. It’s about time that qualified small businesses are granted certain rights and opportunities that will help preserve their business so they may continue to thrive and serve our community.
There needs to be an integrated, planned commercial business base that will be able to service all the community needs in various neighborhoods, including the occupants of affordable, low-income, and subsidized housing.
Perhaps a vision and direction for each neighborhood as part of a Master Plan would provide for the preservation of qualified and existing neighborhood services as an integral part of everyday life here.
It speaks volumes about our priorities and values if we don’t take some action and acknowledge the importance of this. Corporate and Investor Markets favor businesses and institutions that generally cater to wealthier clientele and most developers will continue to replicate those types of spaces. There is nothing wrong with this and I encourage and appreciate well-planned and sensible upscale development, but there needs to be a balance and a more equitable system put in place that represents the needs of everybody, including our new low-income and affordable housing residents. Without revised zoning and permitting policies acknowledging non-residential displacement and targeting this problem, we will pay the price in the long run because many businesses that make our city unique, more affordable, and special are disappearing, one by one.
Let’s at least acknowledge this problem and start a conversation about potential solutions across the board for new and proposed developments (some of which already exist in part but not as a master plan). For example;
- Zoning: Special Zoning Districts proposed by neighborhood community groups that limit certain retail spaces to discourage the proliferation of corporate big box and chain stores and prioritize unique family-run businesses.
- Allocation of lower-income business units: Mandating a percentage of a ground floor and second-floor commercial space to be allocated to be more affordable for small businesses based on a predetermined formula.
- Tax incentives: Abatements and subsidies for landlords who provide long-term leases for “community-serving” qualified family-owned businesses.
- Targeted use of city subsidies: City subsidized developments for small mom and pop shops and starter businesses not only on Pico Blvd, but also on Santa Monica Blvd, Wilshire Blvd, and other locations throughout the city.
Cooperatively and thoughtfully applied and if implemented sensibly by public and private stakeholders, there would be a noticeable impact on preserving the existing cultural vitality of our great little city.
Michael Jolly, AIRCRE
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc Verville accountant ret.; Michael Jolly, AIRCRE