Council Kills "Monster" Condo
By Jorge Casuso
In a decision that could signal hard times for condo developers, the City Council Tuesday night nixed a 10-unit project with 22 underground parking spaces that met zoning requirements but was deemed incompatible with the neighborhood.
In a 4 to 2 vote, the council denied the developer's appeal of a decision by the new slow growth Planning Commission, which voted 5 to 1 against the project last month. The commission had used its discretion to find that the two 30-foot tall buildings (a rooftop parapet wall and mechanical rooms would add another 9 feet) did not fit the scale of the street.
Neighbors contended that buildings at 834-838 16th Street would tower above neighboring structures, block light, endanger safety in an already busy alley and increase the area's parking woes. The developer - who said he waited 20 months for a commission hearing -- will have to redesign the buildings to meet stricter standards extended by the council Tuesday night.
"There was opportunity to design a compatible building," said Mayor Ken Genser. "We adopted new standards for good reason. There was concern about the scale of the buildings. This building is incompatible with the neighborhood. If we have a new building, it should fall under the new standards."
"This is always a matter of compatibility," said Council member Pam O'Connor. "It does get down to compatibility - mass and volume, light and views. The compatibility isn't there."
Councilmen Robert Holbrook and Paul Rosenstein voted to send the project back to the Planning Commission with modifications, arguing that it was unfair to judge the development under standards that were not in place when it was first submitted.
"This project needs to be considered according to standards in place at the time," Rosenstein said. "These projects (buildings) were applied for under old rules."
Developer Norman Slater and his attorney argued that the townhouse-style buildings meet all applicable development standards and cannot be denied unless the City can identify health and safety issues that cannot be mitigated.
They also offered to remove the mechanical rooms from the roof and to place the parking entrance at the front of the buildings instead of the alley, a change that does not conform to City code.
In the end, the council concluded that the developer had not sought adequate imput from the community. Most of the dozen neighbors who testified said they opposed the project.
"The proposed buildings do not fit in with the neighborhood," said Louise Gibson, who lives on the lower floor of the building next door. "It would make my apartment extremely dark."
Pam Vavra said the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition voted unanimously to oppose the project.
"We're concerned about the proliferation of monster condos in our community," Vavra said.
Some neighbors, however, argued that the proposed project was better than the "dumpy" single family home and two residential units on the two-lot site.
The current buildings, which look "small and dumpy" are what seem out of scale," said Nancy MacDonald, who lives on 15th Street. "It (the proposed project) can make Santa Monica even a better place to live."
Council members said the developer should have met with neighbors before proposing the project.
"If we were to grant the appeal," Councilman Feinstein said, "it would essentially say, 'Don't talk to neighbors. Try to get it through and if you can't, then go back to the neighbors.' Check in with the grassroots and neighborhood first."
Rosenstein argued that talking to neighbors was not a requirement for approval.
"How can you make that a reason for denying a project if that is not a requirement the City has?" Rosenstein said.
In a related issue, the Council voted to extend for 18 months - with minor modifications --- an emergency interim ordinance to establish a design compatibility permit for condominiums and to impose a construction rate program in multi-family zoning districts.
The current construction rate program - which was the subject of a lawsuit -- allows only one construction or substantial remodel project per block in multi-family districts. The project must also not be within a five hundred-foot radius of another construction project subject to the program.
Among the changes, the council voted to reduce from 18 months to 15 months the period before a new building permit can be issued.
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