Homelessness is a problem in California, and nowhere is this more evident than in our fair city, where the unhoused population has skyrocketed with the completion of the Expo Metro Line that tacitly offers free transportation directly into Santa Monica. On this fact, I believe everyone, regardless of political or ideological background, can agree. In what seems like a panicked reaction void of reason, capitulation to the developer lobby, or a combination of the two, the State of California has handed down a host of legislation that throws the doors wide open to developers, who in some demented vision are going to build us out of this humanitarian crisis, or at least enrich themselves trying.
Like all legislation favoring corporations over citizens, this builder-friendly slate of new laws comes with a lofty-sounding trope designed to mitigate objection. In this case, “affordable housing” is the high-minded concept aimed at softening the blow for communities that have been stripped of all local control over city planning and self-determination in favor of a one-size-fits-all state-wide development plan. The term dares well-meaning, civic-minded residents to oppose a program that purports to provide reduced rents for lower-income residents, a plan that will somehow magically reduce homelessness. And as always, the situational reality is buried beneath a deep pile of profit and ideological compost.
Conceptually, the idea for this trickle-down housing scheme is that in exchange for including a small percentage of deed-restricted, reduced-rent units designated for moderate, low, and extremely low-income renters, developers can mostly ignore all local development restrictions, zoning ordinances and approval processes to build dense, over-sized, generic, low-concept projects that are out of scale with the neighborhood, the city and its infrastructure, as well as its cultural aesthetic and natural resource limitations. Some may feel that this is a worthwhile trade-off. For the moment, we’ll put aside the concept that building tens of thousands of luxury, market-rate apartments, with a small percentage of “affordable housing” thrown in, will reduce homelessness in Santa Monica. It won’t, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Instead, let’s focus on the reality behind the idyllic illusion and the logistical gymnastics that are more likely to create a permanent second-class of Santa Monica residents who neither live in the buildings requiring the affordable units nor enjoy the same amenities. While a small percentage of these second-class residents will be allowed to occupy the primary buildings and rub elbows with their socio-economic betters, most will be shunted off to separate “receiver site” developments, built just for them, that are exempt from zoning code density limits and parking requirements.
For example, prolific Santa Monica developer Cypress Equity, Inc. (CEI) currently has a total of six city-approved projects slated for development that take advantage of the affordable housing (bonus density) incentives. While CEI has subsequently filed proposals to dramatically enlarge some approved projects through the “builder’s remedy,” the current approved plans are for a total of 1,054 units spread across six development sites, including 961 market rate units and 93 affordable housing apartments. An additional 72 required affordable housing units will be shuffled off to two off-site serf housing developments at 1215 19th Street and 1333 7th Street, both of which are exempt from zoning code density limitations and parking requirements.
For those housed in the primary development sites, parking will be segregated between market-rate and affordable housing residents. For example, the four-story CEI project located at 2025 Wilshire Boulevard will house market-rate residents only. The site provides 83 parking spaces to be divided among 46 units. Studio apartments will each have one parking space. One-bedroom units will have access to 1.5 spaces each, with two spaces provided for the two-bedroom units. Additionally, one guest parking space will be provided for every five units.
On the other hand, the eight affordable housing units required for this development will be relocated to the off-site development at 1215 19th Street, which is being built just for them, where they will enjoy zero access to residential or guest parking. CEI has subsequently reapplied to upscale the 2025 Wilshire Boulevard development through the builder’s remedy legislation to an eight-story building consisting of 150 residential units and a three-level, 205-car subterranean parking structure.
Just down the street at CEI’s 1902 Wilshire Boulevard development, the site’s 71 market-rate units will be provided with 141 parking spaces at the same distribution. Tenants for the 19 required affordable housing units will also be redirected to the 1215 19th Street building, where they, too, will enjoy a careless lifestyle. Or, in a more likely scenario, they will vie for limited street parking, much of which is occupied by the patients of Providence Saint John’s Medical Center, who use liberally distributed disabled placards for free street parking. Of course, it’s interesting that these supposedly modern carless residents will each be eligible for one resident-preferred parking permit and two guest permits.
For the six-story CEI development slated for 528 Arizona Avenue, all residents will share an allotment of reduced parking, but of course, not equally. While the 45 market-rate studio and one-bedroom apartments will share 22.5 parking spaces, and the two-bedroom units one space each, the seven affordable housing units in the same building will all share less than two (1.75) parking spaces. The project’s additional 17 required affordable housing units will be relocated to the serfs-only 1333 7th Street development, where they will experience the ideological utopia of a careless society.
Additional CEI projects taking full advantage of the affordable housing profit bonanza include a five-story, 186-unit development at 234 Pico Boulevard that will provide its second-class residents with exactly 50 percent of the number of parking spaces allotted to the building’s first-class residents. The same disparity in parking amenities will also be applied to CEI’s five-story developments at 1527 Lincoln Boulevard and 407 Colorado Avenue, as well as the 521-unit Lincoln Boulevard monstrosity.
Much has been written about the 15-minute urban planning concept that puts a full range of both essential and non-essential services within a 15-minute walk, bike, or public transit ride. However, in this scenario, carless residents can only pursue job opportunities that are available through walking, biking, or public transportation, which in a city the size of Los Angeles is no small handicap. Carless residents also have limited options for purchasing goods and services, which may be less affordable and/or desirable than options further afield. Together, these limitations create a rich environment for stagnating financial mobility. And while walking, biking and public transportation may be fine during daylight hours, it can be dangerous to use these options late at night. Of course, there’s always the option of rideshare. But since the stated purpose of eliminating parking is to reduce the number of car trips, taking an Uber doesn’t really count. Additionally, using ride-share services during peak times can also contribute to financial stagnation.
But theoretically, life, especially in California, is about more than survivability. It’s about lifestyle. So, let’s take a look at some ways you might want to use your valuable weekend time. Say you just found out that a group of old friends is getting together at a restaurant in Pasadena on Saturday afternoon. While you could get to Old Town by car in just under 50 minutes, the same trip on public transit will take 1:45. Ditto on the way back home to Santa Monica. Perhaps it’s just not worth it.
According to a USC Dornsife/Union Bank survey conducted in 2020, “Between 30% and 40% of residents missed an activity last year because transit times were too long or they couldn’t afford transportation. Nearly half said they missed social or leisure activities, at least occasionally, and more than a quarter were forced to skip personal or family medical care visits because transit times were too long.”
How about an opportunity to see your favorite comedian live onstage in Long Beach? To get to the evening show, you’ll need to plan on a 40 to 50-minute drive. But since you don’t have a car, you’ll need to schedule 2:08 on public transportation. But then that means traveling home late at night via bus, train, and walking—probably not the best idea. According to the same survey, “…walking is by far the most popular way to get to a bus or Metro rail station. Yet…more travel-related incidents of harassment and assault are happening on our sidewalks than anywhere else, and to women more so than men. More than 15% of women and 5% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment last year while traveling. Three-quarters of those who experienced sexual harassment or assault reported that they were walking at the time of the incident.” The survey cited additional concerns about using public transit, including a lack of nearby stops, the behavior of other riders, convenience-related issues, and safety while waiting at transit stops.
There is no doubt that cities need to continue developing a public transit infrastructure that provides better, safer, and more convenient access for both essential and non-essential goods and services. Santa Monica Transit provides speedy access to a plethora of destinations. In many cases, taking public transportation is faster, more convenient, and cheaper than driving. Traveling to LAX is one example. While it may be faster to go by car, long-term parking is expensive and still requires a shuttle ride from parking to the terminal. Rideshares average around $50 to $60 plus tip each way, except during peak hours, which can spike the cost even higher. On the other hand, the fare for a ride on the Big Blue Bus’s local or rapid routes comes to a grand total of $1.50. The Expo Metro line provides easy access to a number of interesting destinations, including Museum Row, Staples Center, L.A. Live, and the Los Angeles Convention Center.
While public transit in Santa Monica offers travelers the occasional opportunity to leave their car at home, it does not replace private transportation. Those without a car in a city the size of Los Angeles are denied full access to opportunities for career advancement, optimized spending, and lifestyle. Based on the parking schematic for CEI developments, it’s clear that the concept of a carless society only applies to its second-class residents. Ironically, those being denied access to a car are the very people who would most benefit from private transportation. Instead, tenants occupying affordable housing units are being relegated to a perpetual second-class status, which amounts to a disingenuous public relations campaign and a windfall for developers.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
By Marie Standing
S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE Marie Standing. Jack Hillbrand AIA
For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing