Santa Monica Planning Commissioners Deadlocked On Housing Project

Tuesday, 25 Oct 2011, 2:01:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

Planning commissioners were cautiously concerned about a proposed housing project on the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway Street on Oct. 19. With one commissioner just installed and another new member on the way, the Santa Monica Planning Commission may be looking at the upcoming ambitious projects in a new light.

Evidence of the possibility of an altered direction was made clear in the commissioners minutely considered the proposed housing project for 56 studio-size units at 401 Broadway Street in the Downtown. The three-hour discussion was immediately followed by a deadlocked vote on whether to recommend a code amendment allowing for the addition of all-electric vehicle showrooms on the Third Street Promenade.

Functioning more as an advisory board and not the ultimate arbiter of Santa Monica’s present and future development projects, the Planning Commission appears to be setting itself up as a body whom will be fairly critical of whether any given venture it considers will actually further the city’s mission and vision.

If last week’s commission meeting at City Hall proves to be a steady trend, including recent personnel changes in Richard McKinnon joining the commission just before former commissioner Hank Koning prematurely vacating his position, many more lively debates and narrow votes may become the norm.

At heart of the heated debate with respect to the proposed 401 Broadway housing project was the fact that it was not a Development Agreement (DA). Accordingly, the project was vague as to the specified community benefits it would provide in exchange for zoning ordinance exemptions. Similarly, commissioners also queried about alterations to unit sizes.

It was specifically on the issue of unit sizes where commissioners appeared most divisive. As currently proposed, the 401 Broadway housing project would include about 56 studio-size units. Commissioner McKinnon, for example, urged for units with more bedrooms.

“I want to see more diversity,” McKinnon said. “If this building were anywhere but on the corner of Fourth and Broadway, I would be asking for a three-bedroom or a two-bedroom. I do expect to see more units, bigger units.”

McKinnon was also concerned that a housing project full of studio units would create a transient lifestyle of younger tenants revolving through the project like a turnstile.

Unit size and type was not the only sticking point for commissioners; the project was not inclusive of parking spaces.

Even more, as the potential project is not a DA, the developer, David Forbes Hibbert, was willing to make some concessions but fell short of committing to others.

On the one hand, Hibbert was amenable to certain community benefits such as bicycle space for employees of the handful of commercial units within the project and inclusion of a “Hire Local” program, giving Santa Monica residents the opportunity to be considered for the project’s construction-related jobs first. The building’s design would also be eco-friendly, according to the developer.

Also included in the project would be six low-income units, which land use attorney Chris Harding said would cast Hibbert an extra $1 million to build.

The one concession Hibbert appeared unwilling to agree to was a $175,000 transportation contribution to directly fund transit projects with the Downtown, including subsidies for the Expo Light Rail, construction of electric vehicle charging stations, and a bicycle center to be constructed near the project.

As if the extra costs for affordable housing and downtown transit were not enough for the developer, Harding pointed out Hibbert may be required by the Downtown Parking District to shell out upwards of $40,000 to compensate for spaces at local parking lots the building’s tenants may not use.

Despite the concerns and the deadlocked vote, the 401 Broadway project still has a glimmer of light at the end of its tunnel, as the Architectural Review Board and City Council will still consider the matter.

Working its way through City Hall and its various departments since 2008, the 401 Broadway project, if ultimately approved, would replace a parking lot and an automotive garage. Current designs call for a five-story building housing both residential and commercial tenants, but with no on-site parking.

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