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Pitched Battle Over 1950s Ocean-Front Apartment Building in Santa Monica Ends Quietly
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
2802 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310)828-7525 -

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 17, 2016 -- A pitched battle to stop demolition of a 1950s ocean-front apartment complex built for a then booming middle-class in Santa Monica quietly ended last month, clearing the path to the leasing soon of ultra-deluxe-apartments there instead.

After nearly a decade, 301 Ocean Avenue has been granted an occupancy permit for the one-acre site, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean.

The building of 47 modest units survived two attempts to tear them down, one from a Texas developer in 2007 who wanted to construct pricey condos and the next from a Malibu developer who wanted the same at first.

But for some City leaders, the story does not have a happy ending.

In fact, 301 Ocean Avenue is an uncomfortable reminder of the uphill battle to keep affordable housing in Santa Monica – a difficult goal for a city that is politically progressive yet too expensive for the socio-economic diversity of population it seeks.

“In the end, too much money and not enough conscience overrode every protection we tried to provide for those 47 households,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown, who said he tried to champion the renters, some of them financially pressed senior citizens.

The City Council itself approved plans for the site in March of 2015, but only if the property was refurbished instead of demolished.

Preservationists also tried to save the building, which was the longtime home of a Clo Hoover, who became the City’s first female mayor in 1973.

That effort failed too.

It all led to one of the biggest evictions ever of Santa Monica renters due to the Ellis Act, according to the City’s Rent Control Board.

No one realized that at the time, though.

“It seemed less urgent,” said Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, the City’s main preservation group. “Ironically, all the mechanisms were in place to save it.”

McKeown said California’s 1986 Ellis Act was the building’s undoing.

The Ellis Act allows landlords to withdraw from the rent controls adopted in Santa Monica and elsewhere in 1979, as long as they stay out of the rental business at the property for five years.

The owner did all that is required for an Ellis opt out. All tenants were evicted between 2008 and 2009, some even subjected to gag orders (later overturned) by the owner at the time, Trammell Crow.

The current owner, a company headed by Malibu developer Zan Marquis, has refurbished the building to offer 38 apartment units. The City Council was informed of the permit July 20 by city planners, who granted it.

An appeal can be filed to the City Planning Commission and then to the City Council. But that is not expected.

“Santa Monica continues to seek Ellis Act reform,” McKeown said, “but as long as corporations control Sacramento and avarice controls speculators, we will continue to lose heart-breaking battles like this one.”

Marquis did not return a call for comment.

A website for the property, purchased by Marquis in2013, notes the building provides spacious “sparkling” new apartments, lux amenities, state-of-the-art appliances and private balconies. It is set to open this fall, the website says.

No information on rental costs is offered. McKeown said some of previous tenants who inquired were told monthly rent would be $15,000.

It is not known if any of the units are designated as affordable, normally a requirement of City law.

Had the units remained under rent control, though, monthly payments would now range from $996 to $3,225, according to Dan Costello, a Rent Control Board analyst.

Nearly every method the City has used to keep housing affordable is severely stressed these days.

Rent controlled apartments now total 27,542, down by 9,014 units since the law began, most due the use of various exemptions (including Ellis) for bowing out, according to the board’s 2015 final report. But more than two-thirds of those in rent controlled units moved in after 1999, when California’s Costa Hawkins Act allowed landlords to jack future rentals to market rates.

As of last year, renters who moved in before Costa Hawkins decontrol paid from a median of $510 a month to $731 a month for a studio apartment, depending on the neighborhood.

Those who moved in after 1999 paid a median of $1,151 a month for a studio apartment to a high of almost $2,000.

The least expensive three-bedroom unit still under rent control cost median of $966 a month. The most expensive were a median of $3,363 a month, the board’s report said.

The average market-rate for just a one-bedroom is some areas of Santa Monica nears $4,000 a month, by some estimates.

Meanwhile, Santa Monica’s efforts to help construct affordable housing declined dramatically after the state’s abolishment of redevelopment agencies in 2012 removed the most stable source of funding.

And its federal HUD subsidies are far short of the need, leaving tens of thousands on the waiting list. The City Council recently voted to put a measure on the November 8 ballot that would raise sales and other taxes to help finance affordable housing.

In any case, the survival of 301 Ocean Avenue as home to the less than wealthy was difficult from the start.

Built in 1952 and expanded twice more than a decade, the complex was akin to the “garden style” apartment buildings that sprung up after World War II in Santa Monica and the rest of Southern California.

But the building was not considered by City planners to be a great example of the era, which was one of the last in which the less affluent could afford to live so close to Santa Monica’s seashore.

Hoover and her husband owned the land and had the pie-shaped complex constructed. It had a finish of stucco and faux wood vertical siding, approving a lovely view but no setback or curb appeal from landscaping, planners said.

Preservationists said it was worthy of historic designation anyway – which protects against demolition – because living there significantly influenced Hoover. Her public service included saving the Santa Monica Pier, protecting the bay and advocating for the election of women to public office.

After the Landmark Commission agreed to declare the site historic, the City Council revoked the designation several months later.

“It (301 Ocean) lost all of the protection we could offer,” Lemlein said.

Marquis’ $21 million purchase of the site in 2013 from Trammell Crow also included plans for 20 luxury condos, which would have marked the first condo complex in two decades on Ocean Avenue.

McKeown said the City Council subsequently passed an ordinance to save tenants like those at 301 Ocean Avenue from landlord gag orders. He said the law also prohibited owners from withholding relocation fees to “strong-arm” tenants into agreeing to gag orders.

But he recalled in one published account of the fight that the units sat “forlornly vacant for years” before being sold at an inflated value because renters were no longer a “problem.”

“The entire sad adventure had been just a money-making scheme,” he wrote in a piece for Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.

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