DEVELOPMENT – The Manhattan Beach Planning Commission rejects Project Verandas appeals
by Mark McDermott
The Manhattan Beach Planning Commission last week unanimously, if somewhat reluctantly, voted in favor of Project Verandas, a proposed four-story, 79-unit apartment building on Rosecrans Avenue, which includes six low-income apartments that qualify it for a streamlined, non-discretionary approval process under a state density bonus law.
The 96,217 sq. ft. project is located on Rosecrans, just above Highland Avenue, at the former Verandas site, an event facility, and the current Tradewinds commercial building. Project Verandas has been in the works for over three years and was formally submitted by local developer Frank Buckley a year ago. Due to its qualification under a state law meant to incentivize low-income housing, Project Verandas was only initially subject to administrative approval, and not subject to usual processes, such as an environmental review. Community Development Director Carrie Tai issued approval on March 29. The June 8 public hearing 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.
“I don’t think staff is happy. I don’t think the City Attorney is happy. I don’t think the Planning Commission is happy,” said commissioner Jim Dillavou. “Because normally what would happen, state law aside, is we would have a kind of a similar dialogue that we had today but probably get a little bit more into the details of the project, and be able to incorporate a little bit more of that community feedback. And that’s what the community clearly wants, based on the comments that were submitted. That’s what we want. So I think it’s safe to say that we are all sitting in a very frustrated position.”
Commissioner Gerry Morton said a majority of the public wanted to see a less dense project, and that normally the commission would have the ability to consider neighborhood impact, and a project’s suitability with the City’s General Plan.
“We’re really looking at this, this appeal [in terms of] how the project complies with the density bonus outline, and really, legislation out of Sacramento,” Morton said. “I mean, if people don’t like certain legislation, they can make their voices known there. But we have to work with what we’re given…I’ve reviewed the four appeals of the project in detail, I’ve looked for ways in which this does not comport with the law, and I’ve yet to find it. So given that, I can’t personally vote in any way other than to reject the appeal and support the director’s decision to move forward with the project.”
Dillavou emphasized that the developer had simply followed the law in submitting the project.
“I don’t think anybody is wrong. This is a super unique situation,” he said. “The only thing we could do here is set the City up for significant litigation by deciding not to follow the law, which would just be a painful, expensive waste of time and money because the issue has been litigated a number of times and it’s been upheld. And so we can try to puff out our chest, and say that we’re Manhattan Beach, and we’re different, we’re not going to follow the law because we don’t have to — but after two years of fighting, I think we lose, one way or the other.”
Commissioner Robert Tokashiki said local officials have to bear the brunt of state decisions.
“You know, we get these directions coming out of Sacramento, yet they’re not part of the conversation when staff has to put together an administrative decision,” he said. “It seems like they should be taking a little bit of the heat, also.”
Buckley, the developer, gave a short presentation on the project in which he emphasized that under current zoning — local, not state — the proposed residential use has less impact on the surrounding neighborhood than the existing uses, and every other possible use, which include hotel and retail.
“We were initially introduced to the site by a New York developer seeking capital. He was looking to build a 10-plus story luxury hotel,” Buckley said. “Needless to say, we never wanted to do that deal. And it never came to fruition, thank goodness.”
Buckley and his team did look at a smaller boutique hotel, but could never make it pencil out.
“After months of analyzing every possible use case, from mixed-use retail to office to hotel, we and our experts concluded that multifamily residential was indeed the highest and best use,” he said. “Why? Because it helps the city reach its housing goals, both market-rate and middle class. It optimizes sustainability by creating proximity between the labor force and the workplace. It complements the restaurants and retail businesses located in El Porto and the North End. It has the least traffic impact when compared to alternative developments, which include mixed-use retail, hotel, and existing commercial use. It improves access to public parking.”
A 127-space underground parking garage is included in the project. But Buckley argued that because the two existing buildings being razed for the new project are “under-parked,” the project actually frees up over 200 spaces in the adjacent City and Chevron lots that are currently used for parking spillover for existing uses. And though it was not required, the developer commissioned an independent traffic study, peer-reviewed by the City’s traffic engineer. The study indicated that the existing 931 daily trips would be reduced to 578.
Senior City planner Ted Faturos methodically went through all the issues raised by the four appellants, returning again and again to what the City’s actual authority is.
“I’d like to remind the commission that the project is subject to an administrative, non-discretionary review…which means the review of the project must be based on compliance with objective and applicable development standards,” he said. “And also state density bonus law states that the word objective means involving no personal or subjective judgment by a public official.”
The appellants still made their respective cases. Don McPherson argued that the City could exercise eminent domain to take land between the Manhattan Village mall and the nearby golf course to meet the housing needs Project Verandas purports to do. He said that the project should not be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and that the commission is within its authority to require an Environmental Impact Report. He also said the City could exercise
“The Planning Commission has that discretionary authority,” he said. “This is not a ministerial process. This is a public hearing. And staff makes ministerial decisions, but the Planning Commission exercises its discretion, and in this particular case, CEQA is absolutely clear that this project is subject to environmental review.”
Appellant George Bordokas argued that the City granted the developer waivers for normal code requirements based on evidence supplied by the developer. He suggested a second opinion and strongly argued that the project should be required to abide by the City’s 30 ft. height limit in its coastal zone.
“It’s a pretty nice development. It really looks good,” he said. “It looks like it’ll just really fit into the Manhattan Beach style. But one thing that it doesn’t do, it only provides six affordable units and we need 406. As Don just said, it has 73 very profitable units for the developer. So the developer is paying six units to the state to make money on 73 units and also not abiding by our local codes….They are taking advantage of this community, of our right to control the character of our town, of our right to have laws that shape that character.”
Richard MacKenzie, representing a group of residents appealing the project, likewise implored the Planning Commission to assert local over state rights.
“This project undermines the very charge, authority, and legitimacy of the Planning Commission,” he said. “Are its codes and enforcements applicable to only some projects but not to others? If that is the case, how can you plan for the city’s future? How can you legitimize your actions to some and not to others? The very notion of planning is eviscerated by this project and the enabling legislation. In our opinion, the Manhattan Beach Planning Commission must go on record standing up for its own jurisdiction. We are concerned for not only the character of our small beach community but also for the potential aspects of environmental impact.”
Finally, appellant Andrew Ryan, who owns the adjacent medical office building that Buckley tried unsuccessfully to buy, argued that a provision within state law would allow discretionary review if a “preponderance of evidence” showed the possibility of adverse environmental impact. He said the Chevron refinery, located adjacent to the project site across the nearby El Segundo border, is likely to produce “floating petroleum” that could potentially end up in groundwater due to the project’s subterranean excavation.
“I don’t think anyone here is going to doubt that petroleum isn’t itself a toxic substance and it could have an impact on public health and safety,” Ryan said.
Commissioner Kristin Sistos delved further into the Chevron groundwater issue, at one point noting that if true this issue represented substantive grounds for the commission to exercise authority. But Tim Wood, a hydrogeologist retained by the developer who has examined the project site, said Chevron studies have repeatedly shown that its “product plumes” do not extend beyond the refinery site and, in any case, the groundwater beneath the site is not used for drinking water.
“The groundwater is not used in this area, not because of Chevron,” he said. “The groundwater resources are deep where we pump our drinking water. In this area, you’d be drinking salt water.”
Public testimony at the hearing was equally for and against, somewhat surprisingly given the outpouring of opposition over the past five months that has included a Change.org petition with over 3,000 signatures against the project.
“As much as I would love Manhattan Beach to stay the same way it is forever, I realize it’s naive to think that an acre of relatively undeveloped land near the beach will stay vacant,” said resident Kevin Covert. “It will be developed. After reviewing the various options for the property. I do believe that this project represents the best use and is good for the city. I’ve been both a renter and homeowner in Manhattan Beach and I am very attuned to the extreme lack of affordable housing.”
“It’s become harder and harder to attract young families into this community,” said resident Rod Parsley. “If you’ve been to La Jolla in the last few years, you know, it’s very hard to see someone walking down the street who’s not over 85 years old. We need young, vibrant communities in Manhattan Beach, in our school systems, and I think this is a great way to help attract those types of families into our community.”
Resident Ronald Schendel said opposing the project did not mean opposing what the project could be if improved.
“I think we need to get a little focused here,” he said. “The objections to the project are not to kill the project or to have no apartments there. It’s the height, which would stick out like a sore thumb, and it’s all based on a waiver. And the only reason for a waiver is evidence produced by the developer themselves that the project could not be built within the [30 to 36 ft.] foot height limit. I think it’s hogwash. That has to be challenged.”
“Let’s show our community, and those outside of Manhattan Beach, that we care about our community, valuing reasonable density at current height requirements, versus a community of mega projects,” said resident Don Barker. “Let’s have developers of mega projects go to Redondo Beach and other areas. Who wants Redondo Beach in Manhattan Beach?”
Buckley, in his rebuttal to the appeals, addressed the notion that the six low-income units were the only part of the project addressing the area’s housing shortage.
“This project provides not just the six units but 73 units towards desperately needed housing stock,” he said. “The average price of a home in Manhattan Beach is around $3 million. To rent a home in Manhattan Beach is $5,000, $10,000, $20,000… I have a friend who rents his home in the tree section for $23,000 a month. It’s getting ridiculous. We need more rental product that’s affordable for young families. Otherwise, you’re going to end up like Carmel and just have a bunch of older folks living in Manhattan Beach.”
Buckley said developers throughout the South Bay are looking for ways to provide housing but very few sites present the right opportunity to do so, because of all the elements needed to make it work — including a willing seller, a fair price, and good lot size.
“The moons really have to align. You have to check a lot of boxes,” he said. “We got very lucky with this property. We think it’s a unicorn. I feel very comfortable with what we’re proposing in this location. Would I be comfortable doing this at Highland and Manhattan Beach Boulevard? No, but this is next to a refinery. It is upland from a main intersection, and the views it is blocking are of a refinery, and transmission lines. I live, work and play in the community, and have been here for a long time. I’m very sensitive to what gets developed here, and we’ve taken this into consideration when we proposed this project.” ER