The Santa Monica City Council
The Santa Monica City Council

The Santa Monica City Council narrowly voted Tuesday to make it harder to build more housing along the city’s commercial boulevards.

The 4 to 3 vote Tuesday night upheld the recommendation narrowly approved by the Council on April 15 to remove the option to build 4- to 5-story mixed-use residential buildings along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards from the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which was unanimously approved in 2010 after a six-year community process.

“So for a group of people who claim to support housing, I’m actually quite honestly stunned that we’re not erring on the side of favoring housing,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis, who joined Councilmembers Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day in voting against the downzoning of the city’s boulevards.

Davis spoke at length about why she opposed the amendments to remove the option for 4- to 5-story mixed-use housing on Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards after nearly 90 members of the public spoke during public testimony.

Among the many reasons she gave included the need for more market-rate and affordable housing, the role of housing in making the boulevards more walkable and bikeable, the fact that Wilshire is L.A. County’s most-used transit corridor, and the need to divert development pressures away from existing neighborhoods to prevent the loss of rent-controlled housing. Santa Monica, like Los Angeles, has recently seen increased loss of rent-controlled housing due to Ellis activity, coinciding with the improving economy.

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Davis warned this would only get worse if we didn’t allow the opportunity for developers to build where there currently isn’t any housing.

“If we are genuinely worried about gentrification, what we need to do is build housing options for the wealthy people who will find a way to make it to Santa Monica that doesn’t involve evicting existing tenants,” she said. “And that was really the LUCE vision.”

Councilmember Pam O’Connor echoed Davis’ comments. “We are putting a target on especially rent-controlled buildings, a target on those multi-family buildings. […] We aren’t producing enough housing,” she said, citing the report by Sacramento’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report released in March which showed L.A. County alone underbuilt by one million housing units over the last 40 years. While Santa Monica has, in recent years, begun building housing, especially Downtown, that rate of housing dramatically slowed down last year in the wake of the scuttling of plans to build significant housing on the Expo-adjacent Papermate site.

Councilmember Terry O’Day added that any Tier 3 project would still require approval from the City Council. By keeping the option for 4- to 5-story mixed use projects, O’Day said, “What we are retaining is the opportunity to get these kind of projects.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Tony Vazquez, who voted along with Mayor Kevin McKeown and Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich and Ted Winterer, to remove the options for 4- to 5-story buildings, argued that without Tier 3, there would still be adequate density and that he would be happy to revisit the decision in the year, if the city wasn’t getting enough housing.

“I believe we can meet our sustainability goals and our housing goals without overwhelming our adjacent neighborhoods,” McKeown said of his decision to take the 4- to 5-story option off the table.

The amendments to the LUCE would exempt projects that are 100 percent subsidized affordable and those that are historic landmarks or “structures of merit.” The amendments also still allow Tier 3 projects on parts of Lincoln Boulevard, Colorado, and Broadway, though Davis noted that many of the areas where Tier 3 would still be allowed are already occupied with housing.