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ARB Courage (Part 1 of 2)

On March 4, 2024, your ARB (Architectural Review Board) ruled in favor of the 521-unit Gelson’s Project at Ocean Park and Lincoln Blvd. This controversial project was fatally flawed from the beginning, and by the time the project got to the ARB, very little could be done to make it beneficial. The flaws built into it were so numerous they have been discussed at length in previous  SMart (Santa Monic Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) articles and also in public testimony and letters both at the ARB hearing and on social media. Because the ARB is the only venue where these monster projects typically still need to get a public review/approval, the ARB now has a particular responsibility and new increased relevance.

Reviewing the many Flaws

The project adds thousands of daily trips to an intersection that is already rated as F or D and is the source of many accidents. The project’s circulation overloads the adjacent alleys and streets because driveways coming out of Lincoln or Ocean Park can only turn safely north or east. Likewise, bikes leaving the project can only exit safely eastbound on Ocean Park Blvd (bikes cannot ride safely on Lincoln). The project makes no attempt to take advantage of its scale to enhance the LINK (Lincoln Blvd’s master plan for medians, landscaping, crosswalks, etc.). There is, for example, no lane widening. or separated bike path proposed. The project is on a very noisy intersection whose noise levels were already too high for a school, prompting the move of then-proposed SMASH and John Muir elementary schools to Los Amigos Park thirty years ago. The project has a pitiful 10% (52) of affordable units: nowhere near the 6000 affordable units Sacramento mandates we permit and build in the next seven years. In other words, we would have to build 115 Gelsons-sized projects just to meet Sacramento’s delusional affordable housing mandate.  

Killing the School District

Gelsons has no three-bedroom units, continuing the three decade free fall of our public school enrollment since it’s practically impossible for multigenerational families and families with different gendered children to find three-bedroom apartments. The project makes no attempt to recycle water (a previous state law, now expired, would have required a project this size, over 500 units, to provide a new source of water sufficient to last 20 years). The project makes no attempt toward getting us to net zero (buildings providing all the power they need generated on-site). Net zero buildings are rarely over three stories tall. Environmental progress would be, for example, exceeding substantially the City’s pitiful photovoltaic collector requirement or providing batteries to store the power generated for evening use. The high and too close buildings create conditions of gloomy, deep shade for the bottom rearmost units and no frontal privacy for most of the units due to the lack of open space separating the 12 towers.

One easy way to mitigate these flaws would be to reduce the size of the project by removing one floor from the whole project. In fact, the developer is willing to meet with Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City next week to discuss such a proposal. We will see what the response will be.

Do we need to accept flawed projects?

But regardless of these flaws or possible mitigations you may say we need the housing? We should be willing to accept flawed projects just to get more housing? Actually, we need very little additional housing. The City’s natural growth rate is about 150 units per year (about 1100 units over the next eight years per the new Housing Element’s documentation). What we need is more AFFORDABLE housing. Instead of 90% market rate and 10% affordable provided by Gelsons, we need the exact opposite. In other words, the City’s overbuilding of market rate housing does not help our housing AFFORDABILITY crisis, which includes everyone paying more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage and also includes those that are homeless. First of all, through covid deaths and emigration, our City’s population has dropped at least one thousand residents (about 500 units) in the last few years, while the State’s population has also dropped by over a million residents in those last few years. Second, we currently have in Santa Monica a vacancy rate of about 10%-11%, contrary to the City’s claim, at the Gelson’s ARB hearing, that the vacancy rate was 3-4%. Third, in the near future, the vacancy rate will either increase with the opening of all the new projects already under construction (see the Great Wall of Lincoln), not to mention the many multi-story (some well over ten floors) already in the permit pipeline OR the rent for upper-end apartments will drop slightly, OR both will occur simultaneously: increased vacancy rate and softening of the upper-end apartment market. Neither of these possible events makes Santa Monica more affordable for those who need housing and cannot pay market rates. So, in Santa Monica, we have no demand shortage for upper-end market housing but a huge unmet demand for lower cost apartments. In other words, Santa Monica does not need the Gelson’s project nor its kindred projects.

How did we get stuck with these oversized projects universally reviled by their neighbors and not meeting our real needs? Next week, we will review Sacramento’s role in overbuilding Santa Monica, assisted by an ideologically driven city council that did not push back when it became apparent where the State was headed.  

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA

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

in Opinion
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