Santa Monica has a housing problem: there’s not enough of it. The city’s population has seen a net increase of less than 10,000 people since 1960.
It’s clear to anyone who has tried to move to — or within — Santa Monica that there isn’t enough housing. Vacancy rates are low — below five percent, according to the 2014 USC Casden Multifamily Forecast — and as a result, the Santa Monica’s rents are among the highest in Southern California.
Why has so little housing been built in the last few decades? While strict zoning and onerous approval processes certainly make it harder — and more expensive — to build new housing in Santa Monica, community opposition can often kill projects before they even get past the initial planning phase. That opposition often results, not in a better project, but a less ambitious one that usually forgoes any new housing.
That was the case with the Jerry’s Liquor site (2929 Wilshire Blvd.), which was offloaded last week for $10.5 million by Century West Partners. The developer had planned for a moderate-sized mixed-use housing development at the site, but withdrew plans in the face of community opposition.
The new owner, Cadence Capital Investments, is a known primarily as a retail developer, according to the website that reported the sale. That doesn’t bode well for those who were hopeful the single-story liquor store and surface parking lot, three blocks from a Metro 720 bus stop, could be redeveloped into something that would help alleviate Santa Monica’s worsening housing crunch.
It wasn’t the first time a project at the transit-adjacent site had been waylaid by naysayers.
In 2010, the Planning Commission had approved a development review permit for a four-story, mixed-use building at the Jerry’s Liquor site. It would have replaced the single-story building with 26 new homes and neighborhood-serving retail, including a specialty market. Opposition by local no-growth activists mounted and an appeal was filed. Records show that the City Council never heard the appeal, but the project stalled and the application was withdrawn in spring 2012.
Later that year, the site’s owner applied for a development agreement (DA) to replace the liquor store with a five-story building that would have added 83 homes to the site. It would also have included about 9,000 square feet of ground floor retail.
That proposal met the same fate as the previous one: organized opposition stalled the project, which was then withdrawn.
While no plans for the site have been filed by the new owners, if they want to avoid a similar problem as the previous, can build up to two stories and 15,000 square feet of commercial space (30,000 square feet if it’s a mixed-use project) by right, meaning they don’t have to go through a community process or seek Council approval, according to city officials.
While housing advocates may find the sale disappointing, it isn’t surprising. The fate of the Jerry’s Liquor site is not uncommon in Santa Monica, where developers seeking to convert outdated commercial sites with too much parking into much-needed housing often find themselves thwarted by vehement resistance by local no-growth activists.
Perhaps the highest-profile example in recent memory was the embattled Bergamot Transit Village project, a mixed-use housing, commercial, and retail complex that would have replaced a dilapidated Papermate factory located across the street from the future 26th Street Expo station.
The City Council had been in negotiations with the developer, Texas-based Hines, since 2007 before it was narrowly approved by a 4-to-3 vote in 2014. Activists quickly went to work, successfully gathering enough signatures for a referendum on Council’s decision. Many said, including councilmembers opposed to the project as proposed, that rejecting the proposal would lead to a better project.
Rather than put the issue on the 2014 November ballot, the Council opted to rescind its approval. Instead of getting a better project, however, Hines offloaded the site and the new owner drew up plans for a suburban-style office park. Under the city’s zoning, the new project requires no public process or Council approval. The new project also meant that the roughly 430 housing units — including about 100 lower-income units — were gone.
A few years ago, someone sought to redevelop a small office park at 2121 Cloverfield Boulevard (at the corner of Pico) into a 150-unit mixed-use housing project. After the first community meeting, which was particularly contentious, the developer dropped the project and sold off the property, according to city officials.
The new owners opted for a less controversial option and now construction is underway on a new Whole Foods 365 at the corner; there will be no new housing at the site.
On the site of the old Bank of America building at 3032 Wilshire, Century West proposed a five-story, 100-unit (including 20 affordable units) mixed-use project. About four blocks from a Metro 720 stop and with a Big Blue Bus route 2 stop right in front of the building, it would easily qualify as “transit-oriented.” However, the project is currently listed as “inactive” on the city’s website, a result of a contentious public meeting with neighbors held in 2013. The site remains an unused bank building.
In 2012, Trammel Crow wanted to replace a defunct office building and an abandoned residential complex at 3402 Pico Blvd with 256 homes and ground floor retail space. Members of the Planning Commission thought it was too close to the freeway for residential uses; neighborhood activists simply thought it was too big. There is currently no project listed on the city’s website for that address.
Since 2012, Santa Monica lost out on at least 1,000 units as a direct result of local opposition. All the while, the city remains at the epicenter of a housing affordability crisis precipitated by a regional shortage.
In essence, housing affordability in Santa Monica is dying a death of a thousand cuts. The failure to build new market-rate units forces people who want to live in Santa Monica to compete for older apartments in existing neighborhoods, driving up the rents in mid-century buildings that would otherwise be cheaper, a problem that is happening all across the state where jobs are growing at a much faster pace than housing.
As the sites considered for much-need new housing are redeveloped with lower-scale, purely commercial projects, the city loses them, likely for decades.
But, if someone can’t build new housing in those locations, where can they in Santa Monica?