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Planning Commission discusses zoning changes to boost housing development

Housing: Local officials have started discussions about ways to increase housing in Santa Monica. Courtesy image

Santa Monica has a state mandated requirement to build 8,895 new housing units, of which 6,168 must be affordable, by 2029 and in order to meet this ambitious goal the City is embarking on a series of zoning and land use changes.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) gave Santa Monica these numbers as part of its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), which divvies up requirements to build a total of 1.34 million units statewide amongst cities based on projected housing needs. On Oct. 12, 2021, City Council adopted the 6th Cycle Housing Element, which outlines the City’s plan to meet its RNHA numbers and sent it to HCD for approval.

Staff have begun drafting amendments to the Land Use and Circulation Element of the City’s General Plan, Bergamot Area Plan, Downtown Community Plan, and the Zoning Ordinance to facilitate the goals of the City’s Housing Element.

Planning Commission began discussing the latest proposed amendments in a Feb. 2 meeting and will continue the discussion in a Feb. 16 meeting. Once Planning Commission has voted on its recommendations to the draft zoning changes, they will be passed on to City Council for final approval.

The land use and zoning changes have the potential to dramatically alter the residential and development landscape of the City. This is what they are designed to do as building almost 9,000 new units in the next seven years requires significant change.

While the zoning amendments are lengthy and complex, their simple goal is to create incentives for developers to build housing in Santa Monica and streamline the approval process for projects to begin construction.

There are several areas in the City being targeted for residential development. These include the Bergamot area, Wilshire Blvd., Broadway, Colorado Ave., and Downtown.

A key manner in which the proposed changes will speed up the production of housing is by issuing a by-right approval process for many types of housing projects. This means that projects will forgo the public hearing process and be granted administrative approval if they meet all zoning and permitting requirements set by the City.

The by-right approval process would apply to any project consisting of residential units only, transitional or supportive housing or a mixed-use development where non-residential uses do not exceed 25 percent of the total square footage.

In the Feb. 2 meeting commissioners said they would like to require developers to hold public forums to solicit community input prior to submitting their permit applications. However, commissioners acknowledged that under a by-right system developers would not be obligated to alter plans based on this feedback so long as their plans meet the City’s requirements.

Commissioner Shawn Landres said that the City should be streamlining the approval of housing projects and encouraging developers to build in Santa Monica. However, he said that with the administrative review process it is essential to set very precise guidelines on the type of housing allowed in each area of the City.

“I think at times we have not provided as much certainty to housing developers, affordable or not, as we could have,” said Landres. “Once we’ve actually defined the terms, set the rules of the game, it should be very clear to anybody coming in that if they design a project that meets the standards that we as a community have established, that they know they’re going to be able to build it.”

Other key proposed changes include streamlining the architectural review process for housing projects, reducing minimum parking requirements, updating the City’s affordable housing production program to add more units at all income levels, and allowing multiple-unit housing in non-residential zones.

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