SANTA MONICA STORY: RESIDENTS VS. THE SYSTEM

By Dish Taylor and Titus Wapato

In September 2010, residents in the neighborhood of San Vicente Boulevard and Ocean Avenue appealed a Planning Commission decision that would allow the construction of a condominium complex at 301 Ocean Avenue without an Environmental Impact Report. They believe that the demolition of the existing 47 rental units that are affordable to the majority of Santa Monica’s middle class to make room for 20 condo units that would be affordable to less that one-tenth of one percent of the population carries environmental impacts that need deeper study. Fourteen residents submitted individual donations to pay the filing fee for the appeal. Many more residents who lacked funds to donate are helping to assemble information to support the appeal.

The foremost concern today is that the Planning Department, which is responsible for preparing a report and recommendation to the City Council when it hears the appeal, is pushing for an early hearing date on October 12. That report is expected to rely on a study prepared by a Santa Barbara firm that included information more relevant to Santa Barbara than Santa Monica, and that purports to arrive at a reasoned conclusion that an EIR is not necessary. Residents say that it is not realistic for the city to expect a group of individual citizens to compile the information that they believe will refute the previous report and compose it into their own report in that short period. The development project is assigned to City Planner Tony Kim who said the early date was
needed because they had to manage the agenda for City Council and there were many items coming up for review.
Titus Wapato, a 301 Ocean Avenue resident for 19 years and the contact person for the neighborhood appeal said, “We appreciate the heavy workload the council routinely handles for the citizens, but I don’t think a heavy workload is a valid reason to deprive the neighborhood of the chance for a level playing field.”

Residents also contend that the massive four story Spanish Revival complex dwarfs the neighboring apartments on San Vicente and is not harmonious with the scale and character of the neighborhood. They also oppose code variances that allow the developer to shift mass from the fourth floor at the rear of the complex down to the second and third floors and nearer to the street which increases the visual mass from the curb view. A major concern is the two story deep excavation that displaces over 31,500 cubic yards of soil in close proximity to the Palisades Park cliffs only 100 feet away. The project site has “High Potential” for landslides according to the City of Santa Monica’s Geologic Hazards Map (Geographic Information Systems, 2001). The appellants assert that this hazard alone should be sufficient cause to require an Environmental Impact Report.

The proposed condominium development has been controversial and unpopular with a growing segment of the neighborhood residents since the beginning, and it has been a heartbreaking experience for the former residents
of the apartment complex that was the long-time home of Clo Hoover, Santa Monica’s first woman mayor and a
pioneer for the meaningful involvement of women in Santa Monica government.

Despite the growing opposition, Texas based developer Trammel Crow evicted all tenants from 301 Ocean Avenue in 2009. Betty Yamamoto, a retired VA researcher who lived there for 27 years, had to move in with her sister in the San Fernando Valley because the “affordable housing” offered in the city was far too small for even one person. “I leave with a heavy heart,” said Yamamoto, this place has been like home to all of us. I am going to miss the sense of community we have here.” Yamamoto’s case is typical. Long term Santa Monica citizens that had close ties to churches, doctors, and banks have been forced out of the city and some have left California to live with relatives in other states.
 The controversy began at a community meeting hosted by the Planning Commission at the Ken Edwards Center in January 2008 where Trammel Crow presented a design for a massive concrete structure that residents said looked more like a penal institution or military stronghold than a residential building, and it was totally out of place in the scenic San Vicente neighborhood.

The appeal also states that the developers design application does not adequately address the cultural and economic impacts. Aside from the cultural loss of a building that is a historical landmark according to many historians including noted authors and history professors at prestigious California universities as well as the Landmarks Commission, the development will also erode the population diversity in the city. It displaces 47 households of typical Santa Monica employed renters, a class that is in the majority of the population, and replaces them with 15 households having the financial means to purchase multi-million dollar condominiums. Those purchasers are not likely to be Santa Monica residents. Santa Monicans that can afford multi-million dollar residences are already living in nicer, single family homes on Adelaide, Georgina, and similar broad streets.

As one Planning Commissioner commented when the developer’s representative described a 4,000 square foot unit in the project, “I suppose that includes maid’s quarters and that is where you will get the population diversity.”
Another area that should be studied in an Environmental Impact Report is the effect on the business and commercial make-up of the city. Will the wealthy buyers of the condominiums shop at our locally owned shops or will they shop at Tiffany’s and Bloomingdales in the newly renovated Santa Monica Place? Removing that many working class rental units will increase the number of employees commuting into the city and increase our already congested traffic. Wages earned by those commuters will be taken elsewhere and spend, reducing our tax revenues even further.
These are the kinds of issues that have extended the opposition to this development across the city. Pro development advocates in the private sector, and in both staff and elected positions in local government, argue that the opposition is composed of preservationists and freeloaders that want prime residences at rent controlled prices. But residents assert it is the culture of Santa Monica that they want to preserve. Clearly not every building is a landmark, but the scale and character of our buildings, and the people that inhabit them, who live and work in the city, are the heart and soul of Santa Monica. As citizens they are asserting their voice in the governance of the city, and saying they want to preserve that culture. During the discussion of the developer’s design one Commissioner remarked, “This Spanish Revival design is great for Santa Barbara or Newport Beach, but this is Santa Monica.” That is what the citizens from neighborhoods as diverse as Sunset Park, Ocean Park and NOMA want to preserve.

The appeal is the latest event in the three year struggle to achieve the resolution that they believe is the best for the entire city. At times spirits have sagged when city officials seemingly turned deaf ears to their cause and listened instead to the diversionary arguments of the developer. The backers of the development claimed that the tenants were abusing city process and were only interested in preserving their rent controlled status even though only a few, mostly elderly, tenants had rent controlled leases. After the Landmarks Commission determined that the property was eligible for local landmark designation the developer diverted the debate away from the objective landmark criteria and into a subjective consideration of the appropriate ways to memorialize a significant personage. In granting the developers’ application to reverse the landmark designation the City Council rejected the impartial expertise of architectural historians and preservation experts in favor of the irrelevant arguments of financially involved advocates.

The residents are again concerned that they will not get a fair hearing if the Planning Department succeeds in their push for an early hearing by the city. The Planning Department staff recommended that the Planning Commission approve the developer’s application and residents fear that the early hearing on their appeal is
being sought because the city staff knows the appeal depends on volunteer researchers to compile their report.
Contact person Wapato said, “I continue to be amazed by the developer’s disregard and disrespect of the city’s processes. They have manipulated early hearings when it serves their purpose and they have obtained delays when
it serves their purpose, often causing a lot of inconvenience to concerned citizens attending the hearings. At
one point they even cast doubt on the integrity of a council member. It is incomprehensible why the city is allowing this.” Wapato said he supports the rights of property owners to utilize their property the best way they can but that those rights accrue to property owners and not necessarily to speculators. “When speculators take control of a property solely for the purpose of turning it over at a profit then their rights take a back seat to the rights of neighboring citizens,” Wapato asserted.

Prior to filing an application to evict the tenants in March 2008 Trammel Crow used a public relations consultant in an attempt to convince tenants to sign voluntary move out agreements by offering a relocation assistance payment larger than the amount required by law. Most tenants rejected the offer because the contract would deprive them of the right to speak out about the project, and would force senior citizens to forfeit most of the legally prescribed time before eviction. Several of the tenants, who considered the document to be a violation of their right to free speech, asked the City Attorney’s office for an opinion on the legality of that provision. The City did not respond for more than 9 months. 
The city Landmarks Commission became interested in the issue in April 2008 after some commissioners heard about the proposed development and it was believed that the existing apartments had historic significance because of its association with Clo Hoover. The apartments were built by Clo and her husband Chester in 1952. Clo Hoover became the second woman City Councilmember in 1965 and subsequently played a significant role in defeating plans to demolish the Santa Monica Pier and replace it with a 16 acre man-made island in the Bay that would have high rise office and residential buildings. She led the fight against another plan that would have built a T causeway through the bay to carry traffic from the end of the I-10 Freeway to Malibu.

That plan would have turned the beach area into a backwater. Landmarks Commissioners also believed that 301 Ocean Avenue was a contributor to a proposed historic district comprised of the garden apartments on San Vicente Boulevard from Ocean Avenue to Seventh Street.

Many residents are still angry at the chain of events preceding the reversal of the landmark designation and while there is no concrete connection in the events there is room for conjecture. Following the death of Mayor Katz, the remaining council members appointed Gleam Davis to fill his seat. The appointment process was contentious and, according to viewers, far below the transparency it should have had. After several votes failed to achieve a majority, the council took a recess, and when they returned they bypassed Ted Winterer who had received the highest number of votes among council candidates that did not win election, and Susan Hartley who had placed right behind Winterer to appoint Davis who had not stood for the election. Some citizens pointed to Davis’s close ties to Chris Harding in past education efforts and the representation of the 301 Ocean Avenue developer by Harding’s law firm as being too coincidental to be accidental. Davis and Councilmember Pam O’Connor cast the deciding votes to reverse the landmark designation.

There is widespread belief that what happens at 301 Ocean Avenue will be the harbinger of things to come. Development advocates have said that most of the property in Santa Monica is underutilized. In their view San Vicente can be developed into the next Wishire/Westwood type of area, with high rise, maximum population density, buildings. Because of its central position on the Bay virtually every location in Santa Monica could be made more attractive to Canadian “snowbirds” looking for a warm place to winter. Those of us who live here because Santa Monica is Santa Monica dread the day that comes true.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally posted in The Dispatch on September 20, 2010. Recently, Tramell Crow sold the 301 Ocean Avenue site to another developer for a reported $22 million.

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