With three meetings left in 2014, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a small, 32-unit housing complex along Pico Boulevard, the first — and likely last — housing project to get discretionary approval this year.
The project comes at a time when Santa Monica and the region are facing a housing shortage of historical proportions, forcing rents to record levels. Still, that didn’t stop a handful of extreme anti-development activists showing up to protest the modest, 45-foot building proposed for a vacant lot at Pico and 11th Street.
“I think the important thing about this particularly development is… we have not been building a lot of housing,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis, referring to a point made by her colleague, Ted Winterer, earlier in the meeting that revealed this project would be the first housing project in 2014 to get approval by the City Council.
“People are probably aware that, in the City of Los Angeles, for example, Mayor Garcetti has embarked on an ambitious plan to try to create a 100,000 units of housing,” she said. “We’re certainly not being that ambitious. But, the idea is that, whether we like it or not, the regional population is going to grow and that regional population needs housing.”
Santa Monica has averaged only about 230 net new housing units a year in the last decade.
Mayor Pam O’Connor echoed Davis’ point, noting that most of the population growth in the region is coming from a higher number of births than deaths. “Most of the [regional] growth is we, who live here now, are producing new people. How do we house them becomes part of our challenge,” O’Connor said.
As proposed, the project would have all two-bedroom units and four of them — double what is required by the City charter — will be earmarked as permanently affordable to very low income families.
Davis also said she appreciated the developer’s willingness to provide more affordable housing than is required by the City charter. After the failure of voters to pass affordable housing measures H and HH, she said it is likely to become “an endangered species” in Santa Monica.
As reported in The Lookout News, the few anti-development activists who showed up to speak against the project invoked the current drought as a reason not to build the project, which would meet the highest federal environmental standards as a LEED Platinum building.
“While the drought is incredibly severe and something we all need to have in the forefront of our mind, it can’t become a canard for ‘let’s not build anything,’” Councilmember Gleam Davis said, responding to comments about the drought.
Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day agreed.
“The correct, I think, environmental assessment as to how water use is affected by [regional] growth is the difference between a housing project in Santa Monica versus a housing project somewhere else if it weren’t allowed in Santa Monica,” he said.
He pointed out that claims that projected water usage of new land uses should be compared to the amount of water used currently at the site, an argument employed by the anti-development activists hoping to keep the current site a vacant lot.
“So, it’s not necessarily the difference between what’s used on site in the past and what’s there now, but rather, where are people going to live and what would their water consumption be if that were the alternative,” he said.
Santa Monica has rigorous environmental standards and requires most new construction to strive to some of the highest sustainability standards. That’s not always the case in other cities in the region. Also, urban infill development, like the Pico project, is an important strategy in combating urban sprawl and the inefficient water use that comes with it.
Winterer said that he wanted stronger language in the development agreement to assure that not only would the units each have individual water meters, but also to make sure the tenants living in the market rate units would be charged for their actual water use, as opposed to having their payments bundled with other users in the building.
“Nothing holds you accountable like writing a check every two month,” Winterer said.
The project could also be precedent setting in that the development agreement allows for the developer to build slightly less parking than is required by code. The project would have 64 automobile parking spaces, including six guest spaces and one space for a car-share vehicle, though code requires 70.
Since tenants would have to opt to lease parking spaces individually, rather than having the cost of parking bundled into the rent, Winterer said he wanted to make sure there were protections against tenants opting out of paying for on-site parking and using the City’s preferential parking program to get street parking at much lower costs.
“If we amend our preferential parking ordinance to disallow buildings such as these [with less parking] to let their tenants apply for preferential parking permits, then, in that case, anybody who rented in this building could not get a permit to park on the street,” he said.
That has been one of the political obstacles in Santa Monica against lowering the amount of parking in housing projects. Lower parking requirements in housing projects would lead to a number of benefits, including lower housing costs and reducing car traffic.
Since the project is proposed for a major transit corridor served by Santa Monica’s busiest bus lines — the Big Blue Bus lines 7 and Rapid 7 — and is less than a mile from the future Expo station at 14th and Colorado, 64 parking spots is too high, but it’s still a step in the right direction that the Council is considering ways to address popular concerns surrounding lower parking minimums.
The project will also include 64 secured long term bike parking spaces, four temporary bike parking spaces in the courtyard, and a 142 square feet bicycle repair area on the second level of the underground parking garage.