Santa Monica citizens in the dark as planning goes rogue

Northeast Neighbors

This is the first in a series of articles on the neighborhoods of Santa Monica, addressing resident experiences with the impacts of development and the reasons why they support the LUVE Initiative.

Northeast Neighbors made front-page news in 2013 when the neighborhood group exposed a “mistake” on the official planning map in the City of Santa Monica’s new general plan, the Land Use and Circulation Element. A small surface parking lot behind the Bank of America property at Berkeley Street and Wilshire Boulevard had been changed from residential to commercial, and this change made it possible for the developer to plan a 5-story, 100-unit mixed-use project to be built across the two properties.

A building of that size would never have been possible without the up-zoning of the residential lot behind the bank.

As it turned out, members of Northeast Neighbors discovered the land use change and rallied their neighbors with flyers promoting the upcoming community meeting for the BofA project, flyers that illustrated the dramatic contrast between the current building and the proposed development. The night of the community meeting, the developer and his team encountered an angry crowd of more than 200 residents. Soon after, residents discovered that there were dozens of other “A” lots across the city that had also been changed from residential to commercial on the LUCE map.

Amy Aukstikalnis, chair of the neighborhood organization at the time, remembers that night as a turning point for many. “Residents began to ask who had made the map changes, changes that granted a significant increase in development rights and potential profit to commercial property owners and developers,” she said.

Six Santa Monica neighborhood organizations joined together to lobby the City to explain how the map had been changed, demanding that the City preserve the “A” lots as residential.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown called the map change “a mystery.” Former City Manager Rod Gould said the “A” lot changes on the LUCE map were “a mistake.” To date it has never been revealed when or by whom the map changes were made.

“These changes were never publicly proposed, vetted or discussed by City Council,” Aukstikalnis said. “People were concerned that there might have been other changes to the general plan that had been made without public knowledge. People began to feel distrustful of their city government.”

Not until eight months later did City officials in a Planning Commission meeting state that the map changes had been made to increase commercial development. While the Commission voted to restore most of the 89 “A” lot parcels to their original residential designation, no information was provided on when the map was changed or by whom.

City Planning Director David Martin stated that “some of the parcels along the boulevard were expanded in terms of the commercial designation in order to allow or to, you could say, incentivize the redevelopment of those properties.”

Martin conceded that the conversion of “A” lots made it possible for the City to include in the proposed zoning what they called “Activity Centers,” massive mixed-use development projects (up to 70 feet tall in some areas) that would have loomed high over neighboring homes.

David Yuguchi of the Northeast Neighbors board still remembers the many months of the “A” lot controversy as “a shocking example of the City’s disregard for the public.”

A mostly single-family-home neighborhood north of Wilshire and south of Montana on the eastern edge of Santa Monica, the Northeast Neighborhood is described in the LUCE as “a quiet suburban environment, enhanced by a natural tranquility that stems from their mature tree-lined and beautifully landscaped boulevards and avenues, as well as a lack of intense traffic and automobile noises.”

The leaders of Northeast Neighbors frequently remind city officials that the general plan specifically calls for the quality of life in neighborhoods to be preserved. The LUCE states that planning policies should “discourage regional traffic from using neighborhood streets” and that they should make neighborhood streets safe enough to “enable motorists to stop for a child chasing a ball.”

Aukstikalnis said, “We take that promise very seriously. Our utmost concern is protecting the quality of life for residents.”

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Detail of the flyer distributed by Northeast Neighbors in 2013 to rally opposition to the Bank of America development on a residential “A” lot.

The group was disappointed in the experience and the results of the Zoning Ordinance Update process in which they rigorously engaged. One of their top concerns is that as development agreements and development in general have increased, so has traffic. They have seen their neighborhood streets become secondary arteries as more and more drivers seek to escape traffic on Wilshire Boulevard by cutting through side streets, making them noisy and unsafe.

Residents say the zoning update and City policies have made things worse in this neighborhood — not better.

The City has embarked on an aggressive Traffic Demand Management plan by advancing reduced parking standards and trip reduction measures for new development along the boulevards. While Northeast Neighbors supports the goal of reducing car trips in Santa Monica, these residents do not see the current policies working.

In fact, the City’s policies have had the unintended consequence of pushing commuting workers into neighborhoods in search of available parking. “Without strong parking restrictions in the neighborhoods and enforcement, instead of getting commuters out of cars, we just change where they park,” Aukstikalnis said.

While the new zoning code makes it explicit that parking in commercial buildings must be available to employees, those requirements are not being enforced. Case in point is the Whole Foods market at 23rd and Wilshire, a huge grocery store that employs some 190 workers daily. Because the market does not allow employees to park their cars in the market’s parking structure, the workers park on neighborhood streets.

However, City code requires Whole Foods to allow its employees to park in its parking structure (SMMC 9.28.030B). The board of Northeast Neighbors has written to the City Planning Director to request enforcement of the code but has received no response from either the City planning director or the City code enforcement division.

The campaign to get voters to support the LUVE initiative in the November election has strong support from Northeast Neighbors. The neighborhood group endorsed LUVE and members were active in the signature-gathering campaign that yielded 10,000 signatures to qualify the petition for the ballot.

LUVE’s requirement of voter approval for large projects is consistent with the results of recent surveys of the Northeast Neighbors members. The annual membership renewal form included a survey that asked members the open-ended question “What is your top concern?” For the past three years the No. 1 concern has remained unchanged: overdevelopment.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

 

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