Fast-Track Apartments Starting To Stir Up Dust in Santa Monica

Staff Reporter

Stuart Lautman lives in a one-bedroom apartment on 7th Street in Santa Monica and has put up with a barrage of dirt haulers, cement trucks, and loud construction crews that work from early morning to late afternoon every Monday through Saturday.

"It's like a torture chamber living up here," Lautman. "My nerves are shot."

Many of the residents on 7th Street thought their suffering was over when a new apartment building was recently finished next door. But then a sign went up across the street that a new 52-unit housing project will soon be built.

"There doesn't seem to be any attempt to abate it," said Andrew Leigh, who lives in the same 7th Street building as Lautman. "There's only so much you can take."

Downtown Santa Monica residents feel their neighborhood has been turned into a war zone. First it was increased traffic from the popular Third Street Promenade. Then it was a massive public works project that has torn up several major thoroughfares.

But less noticed in recent years has been the city's policy of fast tracking housing projects in Santa Monica's urban core, which has now become a noisy year-in, year-out process.

After countless complaints from residents, the Santa Monica City Council has asked the Planning Department to study the fast-track program to determine whether it should be slowed down. Planners will return to the City Council some time next month with their findings, said Suzanne Frick, Santa Monica's planning director.

While most housing projects over 15,000 square feet must undergo an extensive study by the Planning Commission, as well as time-consuming environmental reports, residential projects in the downtown area only go before the Planning Commission if they exceed 60,000 square feet.

Instead, the Planning Department's administrative staff reviews the projects and passes it on to the seven-member Architectural Review Board. City officials said the fast-tracking is meeting an increased demand for housing.

Smaller properties

Developers save one to two years in getting a building permit if they limit themselves to smaller apartment buildings in the downtown area bounded by Wilshire Boulevard on the north, Colorado Avenue on the south, Lincoln Boulevard on the east and Ocean Avenue to the west.

Consequently, there has been a flurry of apartment construction primarily on 5th, 6th and 7th streets, adding more than 600 residential units to Santa Monica's tight housing market in the past five years. All the units have been filled and there is demand for more, developers said.

City officials said they also relaxed the regulations as part of an environmentally friendly downtown development plan that will bring in more residents who could walk to work or nearby stores. The city recently finished a Transit Mall that is designed to make public transportation a more attractive alternative to getting around town.

Craig Jones, who has built most of the new housing in the downtown area, is a staunch defender of the quick-approval process.

In five years, the developer says he has built 430 market-priced apartments and 234 affordable apartments for low-income residents in the urban core. He believes residents are taking a narrow view of residential construction. "They're just a bunch of NIMBYs," said the president of JSM Corp. "They like the units they are in, but they don't want other people to come in."

Jones maintains that without the fast-track program, rents could go up because no developer would want to lumber through the bureaucratic process to get a housing project approved. In Jones' apartment buildings, two-bedroom units rent for $1,900 to $3,000 a month.

"No one can wait two to three years with their land in escrow not knowing whether their project is going to be approved," he said.

Proponents of fast tracking note that the residential projects downtown have to follow the same zoning codes as any other project.

But opponents note that developers have been chopping up their projects into 60,000-square-foot chunks to get past a more rigorous review.

"There have been piece-meal projects where they were clearly meant as one building," said Arthur Harris, a downtown resident and a board member of the Bayside District Corp., downtown Santa Monica's business improvement district.

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