DEVELOPMENT Manhattan Beach City Council delays Project Verandas decision
by Mark McDermott
The Manhattan Beach City Council, after more than four hours of testimony, staff reports, and discussion, decided after midnight Tuesday not to decide on the five appeals filed against Project Verandas, a 79-unit apartment complex proposed in El Porto.
The project appeared to face possible defeat as the first two councilpersons to announce their intentions, Suzanne Hadley and Joe Franklin, announced they would oppose it, while Mayor Steve Napolitano at one point bluntly asked developer Frank Buckley, “Why are you doing this to our city?”
But Councilperson Richard Montgomery called for more time to consider the decision, making a motion to continue the matter until the August 30 meeting.
“Bad decisions happen late at night,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery’s motion passed 3-2, with Franklin and Hadley opposing, creating a cliffhanger on an issue that has riveted the community for much of this year. Project Verandas has faced a broad swell of community opposition, including a Change.org petition and an organized opposition group calling itself “Chill the Build” headed by a neighboring attorney, Andrew Ryan, who was also one of the five citizens who appealed both of the Planning Commission’s unanimous approvals of the project.
What has particularly vexed opponents, in addition to the project’s size, has been the developer’s use of the state “density bonus” laws to obtain waivers from usual city restrictions, and planning processes, including height limits, as well as exemption from state environmental law. Project Verandas includes six low-income apartments that qualify it for a streamlined, non-discretionary approval process under state laws intended to incentivize more such housing to address the ongoing California housing crisis. The upshot is the City has little say over the project’s approval, and if the Council does reject it, a legal challenge will almost certainly follow.
Napolitano questioned Buckley about the use of the state density bonus laws.
“I’m trying to find out if this is an altruistic endeavor to provide affordable housing in Manhattan Beach, or if affordable housing is just the vehicle to maximize the buildout of this so you can maximize your profit,” he said to the developer.
“Since 1979, they enacted this legislation for the purpose of incentivizing developers,” Buckley replied. “So yes, it does incentivize developers.”
“Because you can, does that mean you should?” Napolitano asked.
“Not in every location,” Buckley said. “I think in this location, it’s very appropriate.”
The 96,217 sq. ft., four-story project is located on Rosecrans Avenue, just above Highland, at the former Verandas site, an event facility; and the current Tradewinds commercial building. Development at the site has been in the works for years. Buckley has been involved since 2016, while other developers have also fallen in and out of escrow, with earlier iterations seeking a hotel development. Buckley submitted Project Verandas about a year ago, and his application was made public in January. Community Development Director Carrie Tai issued approval on March 29. On June 8, the Planning Commission considered four appeals that attempted to overturn the project’s approval. The Planning Commission, however, likewise had limited purview over the project, assessing mainly its compliance with the law, hence its unanimous approval.
Public testimony against the project Tuesday night centered on traffic, parking and environmental concerns as well as the overall fit, or lack thereof, with the neighborhood and the city’s small-town feel. Several residents encouraged the council to fight state law in order to reject the project.
“Martin Luther King once said, ‘One has not only legal but a moral responsibility to obey laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,’” said resident Audrey Cana. “The density bonus laws are overreaching and unjust.”
“Six units in a 79-unit building should not be able to create this kind of an exception,” said resident Julie Messina.
“A leader needs to stand up and fight to protect and preserve our unique and wonderful community,” said resident Frank Chiella. “We can never just roll over and let the state dictate what development can occur in our city without complying with our local building codes and ordinances. We need to take back our rights as residents to speak out and control what type of new projects take place where we live, work and shop. These rights are why we have local government. Without them, all communities and neighborhoods in our state would look and feel the same. Your hands are not tied.”
Several residents also spoke in favor of the project, most arguing that Manhattan Beach needs a mix of housing that includes more rentals to keep attracting people who might not be able to afford the high cost of buying a home.
“I always see people talking about very low income versus luxury housing,” said resident Nick Brosseau. “People tend to forget about this middle-income, middle-class area where we just cannot afford or even find places to live. I’m one of the lucky ones in my income and age bracket who was able to buy a place in El Porto I ended up paying two-and-change million dollars, don’t have AC, windows don’t shut, don’t have parking, my plumbing is busted. We live like animals…and I’m calling myself a lucky one, I mean, absolutely lucky. So if we want to be the kind of community that invests in our future and young professionals who are educated and want to start their families here, we need to give them a place to live. Right now, that doesn’t exist. You’re either buying a $10 million house or you’re living in a 450-square-foot box.”
Resident Fred Shaeffer said the median home when he and his family bought in 1997 was $800,000. Now, it is nearly $3 million.
“That’s wonderful for those of us fortunate enough to own homes during that time, but have you ever said, ‘Gee, I couldn’t afford to live here now. What about our kids’” Shaeffer said. “I’m concerned about where my kids as adults will live, whether they’re going to be able to afford to live in Manhattan Beach. Lack of supply of housing has a lot to do with the level of affordability here. The [Verandas] project is the only large apartment project I can recall being proposed in Manhattan Beach since we’ve been here.”
Buckley, questioned by Councilperson Joe Franklin about the project’s likely rental costs, said a rough estimate was $2,500 for a studio, $4,500 for a two-bedroom, and $7,500 for a three-bedroom apartment. The prices he said, based on an Apartment.com survey, are about 60 percent of average rents currently in Manhattan Beach.
Ryan, one of the appellants, owns a building at 317 Rosecrans, which will be enfolded on two sides by Project Verandas. His appeal was largely based on environmental concerns, although he also argued that the site’s location in the Coastal Zone exempted it from density bonus laws. He also said the project, due to its location adjacent to the Chevron refinery, should be subject to an Environmental Impact Report. He cited Chevron studies showing 1,000 gallons of crude oil present beneath the refinery in 2021 and suggested no barrier existed to keep that oil from reaching the Verandas site due to its two-story subterranean parking structure.
“I think the city council needs to focus on public health and safety in this circumstance. There’s evidence before you of this being a potential public health and safety hazard,” Ryan said. “I think the council needs to evaluate this. Frankly, I think litigation is going to be spawned by this decision tonight no matter how it goes. There are going to be attorneys fees no matter what on this issue. However, I think that the financial potential of lawsuits against the city for not properly investigating the site could expose the city to hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits in the future.”
City Attorney Quinn Barrow rejected Ryan’s argument that the project is exempt from state density bonus laws, or that it was subject to CEQA review.
“Staff looked at [the California Environmental Quality Act], and determined that it’s a ministerial project and so, therefore, no environmental review is necessary,” he said.
Timothy Wood, a hydrologist who oversaw studies of the site for the developer, said extensive test drills were done at the site going 50 ft. deep, and no oil or other harmful chemicals were found. He also noted that no wells have ever existed on the site, and that Chevron’s own recovery wells serve as a barrier between the refinery and Project Verandas.
“There’s a lot of false statements made about the environmental [aspects] that are very important,” Wood said, later adding, “We don’t just buckshot everything. We follow a really prescribed process, and when we do an environmental assessment, we try to identify multiple lines of evidence.”
No evidence exists, Wood said, that any environmental danger exists in developing the site.
Two former councilpersons, Mark Burton and Wayne Powell, both spoke against the project, and encouraged the City to take up the legal battle required to reject it. Both referenced the City’s plastic bag ban enacted when they served, which was challenged, and defeated both in a trial court, and an appeals court, but eventually upheld by the California Supreme Court.
“A prior City Council thought it was important to ban the use of plastic bags to protect our environment. More importantly, they had the resolve to defend that ban all the way to the Supreme Court, where they won,” said Burton, who also filed an appeal against Project Verandas. “Our residents expect you to deny this project in order to protect our low-profile character, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.”
Montgomery bristled at the comparison.
“I think it’s ironic to hear two former council members tonight talk about a fight in 2009, when I was mayor, about the plastic bag ban,” he said. “And as you heard, it was an uphill battle, and people didn’t give us much of a chance against the friends of the plastic bag industry. We won that one, and it wasn’t just us. Other cities were with us, we didn’t do it by ourselves. So I don’t have to prove myself or explain my bonafides about fighting uphill. We’ve been there and done it. This is not the same thing.”
Near the end of the meeting, Hadley questioned the developer about the community blowback against the project. Buckley, who at one point likened opposition “hysteria” to someone shouting fire in a crowded theater, said he expected many of the arguments but not the outright falsehoods.
“It does bother me,” he said. “I’m open to a fair debate. I think competing views are advantageous when you’re debating this kind of project. But to take the gloves off and start a smear campaign and create hysteria with false claims, sure, it’s a great strategy, but as a developer, you look at that and say, what am I really fighting?”
The developer’s land use attorney, Michael Shonafelt, said that the site is eligible for a much bigger project.
“You’ve got a very thoughtful project that does not exploit or maximize its rights under state density bonus law,” he said. “Frank Buckley, is a member of the community. It’s a very thoughtful project. If you pass on this one, you’re going to get a bigger one.”
Buckley maintained that this project will have less impact than almost anything else that could be built at the site, particularly a commercial project that would have much more intensive parking and traffic impacts. He said he called every person who submitted a letter to the City and met with many, actually changing several residents’ minds by simply presenting facts.
“You’d have a lot more people here today if I didn’t do that,” he said. “So I think there’s a silent majority that is in favor of the project or certainly put their swords down, and that there’s a fringe contingent that has been producing hysteria, unnecessarily, as evidenced by a full page ad in the paper on Thursday.”
“But you do have to live here in the aftermath,” Hadley said.
“I’m happy to live here,” Buckley said. “I’m going to hold my head high.”
Hadley said that though she sympathized with the need for people like her own children to have affordable places to live in Manhattan Beach, and believed in defending property rights, she could not support the project.
“I’m coming right out and saying that I don’t want to see it built,” she said. “And our community doesn’t want it built. I do agree, sometimes there is a silent majority that is uninformed, or off base, or whatever, but we have a pretty sophisticated community here, and we have gotten outreach the likes of which I’ve rarely seen, if ever, in the three years that I’ve been on council.”
Hadley said residents have told her they are happy to have their taxes pay for a legal fight on this issue.
“I remain unconvinced that it’s settled law, and I will only be forced to build this project by a judge,” she said. “I was elected to fight for my residents and to fight to protect what our own city mission statement says, which is [that] the City of Manhattan Beach is dedicated to preserving our small beach town character. Which, like it or not, is largely single-family housing.”
Councilperson Hildy Stern agreed with Montgomery, that such a big decision should not be made so late, nor in a rush.
“I still have a lot of questions, because I think as a city we need to be taking responsibility for the housing crisis, that we need to be looking more thoughtfully at how we can be a solution to this great disparity in the cost of housing.”
Stern said her four adult children, like Hadley’s, cannot afford to live in Manhattan Beach.
“I actually have affordable housing in my house,” she said. “It’s on the second floor, and it’s one of my kids still living there…I want to figure out how we can support this project and support our city at the same time, so that we can provide more affordable housing than multimillion-dollar homes, which are not affordable, not to my children.”
Napolitano said he was ready to make a decision but deferred to Stern and Montgomery to continue the matter in two weeks.
“Anticlimactic,” said Napolitano, only half-jokingly. “To be continued.” ER