The character of Vicente Terrace

As it turns out, not all politics are local, and what with one thing or another going on in the world, I’m one local news obsessive who has had a difficult time lately obsessing on local news. Thus, no posts here since October, meaning I’ve left uncommented upon elections in Santa Monica and a lawsuit that would upend Santa Monica politics completely. Matters about which previously I would have written much.

But this weekend I’ve put the Mueller report aside to write about a hyper local Santa Monica issue, namely the future of two apartment projects near the beach. I wrote about them in my last column, back in October, and I feel compelled to follow the story.

The owners of the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels are developing two apartment buildings (with retail on the ground floors) on vacant lots near the hotels. The Planning Commission approved both projects last year, but those approvals have been appealed to the City Council. The council will consider the appeals at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The developer submitted plans for the apartments in September 2015. Even assuming the council denies the appeals and approves the projects, that means it will have taken almost four years to make a decision over two small buildings with a combined 105 apartments, including 16 affordable units. No wonder the legislature in Sacramento is frustrated by how difficult it is to get housing built in California. (Incidentally, based on the development potential of one of the sites, the hotel owners paid $13 million for one of the properties, money that went into the City’s affordable housing fund.)

Of the two projects, the larger one would replace the parking lot between Ocean Avenue and Shutters. The northern edge of the property is Vicente Terrace, a street that runs from Ocean Avenue down to the beach. Residents who live on the north side of the street have appealed the approval of the project, primarily on the grounds that having an apartment building across from their houses would be contrary to “neighborhood character.”

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Vicente Terrace

Before I explain why I disagree with the neighbors’ appeal, it’s only fair to mention that they are not taking the stance of so many opponents of change in Santa Monica, meaning that they are not opposing the whole project. They seem to recognize that buildings across the street housing new neighbors would be an improvement over the parking lot that they face now. What these neighbors say they want is for the developers to make the building look like it’s a row of townhouses rather than an apartment building.

They also acknowledge that the Planning Commission approved a plan that the developer modified to respond to their concerns. The buildings on Vicente Terrace will now be stepped back considerably from the curb (from 15 to 22 feet, even though the zoning ordinance only requires a five-foot setback) and the floors above 36 feet (the height limit the neighbors say they would accept) are stepped back at least another 20 feet, meaning these upper floors will likely not be perceptible from the street below.

There is now only small difference in terms of size and massing between the approved plans and what the neighbors say they want, except that the neighbors want the façades to mimic townhouses rather than apartments. (Related to this, they also contend that apartments across the street will lower their property values.)

I say, “small difference,” but let’s not forget Freud’s concept of the “narcissism of small differences”: small disagreements can fuel passionate arguments. In this case, the neighbors in their houses fervently desire to face façades that are or at least appear to be single-family homes, not apartments.  Instead of the narcissism of small differences, what we seem to have here is plain narcissism. They want the other side of the street to mirror themselves.

As I said, these neighbors don’t seem to be hard-line NIMBYs, and judging by an opinion piece one of them wrote in the Daily Press, some at least assume a liberal political mantle (“Wall Street vs. Main Street”). (I often wonder if Santa Monicans who decry the profit motives of real estate developers don’t go to movies because they’re made by movie producers and studios obsessed with the box office.)

The neighbors, however, seem unaware of how arguments based on “neighborhood character” have historically been used to exclude apartments from neighborhoods because of fears of allowing into neighborhoods the lower economic classes.

Nor do they seem to be aware that in places where the population is generally left-wing, left-wingers have been adept at finding new rhetoric to justify the same old suburban sanctification and glorification of single-family homes vs. the vilification of apartments. (This is of course creates cognitive dissonance here in Santa Monica, where left-wing arguments against building market rate apartments are also based on phony (when coming from generally affluent people) quasi-Marxist arguments based on the expected high incomes of  future tenants who surely will be class-enemies if they can afford to rent new apartments in Santa Monica.)

In the context of the housing crisis created by NIMBYism and the environmental crisis created by sprawl, left-wing arguments against infill development, however, are now being challenged as anti-city and pro-sprawl. As Benjamin Ross puts it in his 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, a history of how restrictive land use policies aimed against apartments and the people who would live in them destroyed cities and gave us sprawl, “the rise of the antisprawl movement has put resistance to change in conflict with left-of-center social and environmental goals…. [Although] [o]pponents of urban infill are fewer in number . . . they have not abandoned the fight. The rhetoric of the environmentalist Left remains on their lips, but the substance of their agenda has begun to converge with the familiar exclusion of old-line suburbs.” (Emphasis added.) Ross calls this “left nimbyism.”

I live in Ocean Park, a once single-family neighborhood that thankfully became a mixed neighborhood of houses and apartments before the City adopted mono-culture zoning. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the “character” of Ocean Park. On a per square foot basis, Ocean Park has some of the highest priced real estate in California. The Vicente Terrace neighbors’ argument that apartments will lower their property values is laughable.

I want to distinguish these phony leftist arguments from the genuine left-wing concerns of UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that represents hotel workers in Santa Monica, which has appealed the approvals of both buildings. The grounds for the union’s appeal are that the union doesn’t believe that the approvals include enough protections against the renting of the apartments as short-term rentals (either as Airbnb-type lodgings or as corporate housing).

UNITE HERE is right to be concerned about short-term rentals of unoccupied apartments, as they have become a scourge of the housing market. It appears to me, however, based on the staff report, that the City has included sufficient enforcement mechanisms in the conditions of approval and in existing law. (And the City has had some success recently with enforcement.) However, if it’s possible to approve the projects with more effective enforcement mechanisms, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

Thanks for reading.

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