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After Nearly Two Decades Stalled Santa Monica Apartment Still Unfinished

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and MarkHarding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

May 7, 2014 -- For nine years, Jesse Singer has lived two houses down from an abandoned half-finished building that has been a conspicuous eyesore on a leafy Santa Monica street near the eastern edge of the city.

The building had already stood half-finished for nearly a decade when Singer and his wife moved in, the construction delays caused either by bureaucratic snags, zoning laws, city ordinances or shoddy work from the contractor. (“Small Santa Monica Apartment Building 15 Years in the Works,” April 23, 2012)

“It’s taking too much time and it’s been going on for too long,” said Singer, who is working with a local Homeowner’s Association to come up with a resolution to take to the City Council.  “I feel like the City hasn’t moved fast enough. 

“Everything keeps getting kicked down the road without a resolution, and it’s unfair to the community that the property is kept the way it is,” he said. “Every neighbor is frustrated by this, and hopefully we can have this resolved soon.”

After the owner applied for a building permit in 1997, construction of the two-story, four-unit  apartment building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Stanford Street was delayed by disputes with the contractor, then by changes to the zoning code, according to City officials.

"The property sat for so long the code had changed and the setback requirements had changed," said City Planning Director David Martin . "The existing ordinance doesn't allow you to seek a variance, unless it is an unusual lot.

"We are all of the opinion that the best thing to do is finish it and get those units up and running," he said. 

The two-story, four-unit apartment building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Stanford Street may finally turn the corner, City officials said.

After 17 years, owner Naren Desai’s design compatibility permit is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission as early as this month, according to City planning officials.

That’s only the first turn in what has been, so far, a bureaucratic maze.
After the commission’s decision, “there will be a fourteen-day appeals period,” said Principal Planner Paul Foley.

“Then it goes back to the Architectural Review Board (ARB) for approval of building materials, etc.,” Foley said. “After ARB approval (which has a 10 day appeal period), he can then submit for a plan check. The plan check period will depend on how good and complete the building plans are.”

City officials are considering expediting the process once the Planning Commission green lights the permits.

Asked why the project has taken 17 years to complete, City officials say that Desai “left the city for a long time” and that progress could not be made without his presence. 

The property is not considered “abandoned” because some clear action must be taken to indicate that the owner no longer wants his property, officials said.  Because Desai fully intends to complete the project, the property still belongs to him. 

 “It's private property,” Deputy City Attorney Yibin Shen told The Lookout  “Only if the City finds that it's a safety or health nuisance, then we can take direct action.”

Since 2001, 18 formal complaints have been levied against the property, with no open cases currently pending, according to Joe Trujillo, the City's Code Enforcement Division Manager.

According to the City's website, Code Compliance Officers investigate each complaint and a citation is given if a violation is confirmed. 

“If the violation notice is not properly abated and the violation continues further, enforcement action will be taken,” the website says. “Non-compliant cases will be referred to the City Attorney’s Office for litigation,”

So far, Chen said, “no litigation has been referred to the City Attorney's Office concerning this property.”

“We do not have an open case but do monitor the vacant property,” Trujillo said.

In April of 2013, a joint inspection of the property was conducted by inspectors from the Building and Safety Division, the Fire Department and the Code Enforcement Division.

“The inspection result found that the structure is sound, no property maintenance issues were identified and the condition of the property did not constitute a fire hazard,” said Trujillo.

“In addition, the property is gated and locked and the property owner has been responsive when contacted by this office.”

Martin acknowledged the City could have taken more drastic steps to force the owner to act or sell the property, but chose instead to work with him.

"It's an eyesore, I won't deny that," Martin said, "but it never became a public nuisance."

Singer, along with the other neighbors, feels the City has been too lax, and they are skeptical of the staff’s timeline for the project.

“I contacted someone in the planning office a year ago and they told me the same thing,” Singer said. “Both sides are taking too long for this.

“It’s a standoff between the property owner and the city,” he said, “and it’s the community that is hurting.”

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