Community activists who have been fighting for more than 12 years to force the city of Santa Monica to replace at least some low- and moderately priced housing near the beach are finally watching their efforts bear fruit.
Rehabilitation has started on two buildings that will be turned into 22 units of government-subsidized, low-income apartments. The work, scheduled to be completed in April, is being financed by a $1-million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Dvelopment (HUD).
The project, at 175 Ocean Park Blvd., includes 10 one-bedroom units for senior citizens and 12 two-bedroom units for low-income families at prices ranging from $80 to $360 a month, depending on income. The county Housing Authority will manage the project and select tenants.
Although happy that the apartments will soon be available for low-income people, City Councilman James Conn expressed dismay over the time it has taken to start refurbishing the buildings.
Conn was among a group of activists who in 1973 first raised the issue of replacement housing for the poor near the beach because of the demolition of about 1,000 residences in the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project.
Except for 100 units of senior-citizen housing near the beach, replacement housing for people displaced by the redevelopment project was built away from that area.
The redevelopment project, bounded by Ocean Avenue, Ocean Park Boulevard, Barnard Way and Marine Street, a block from the beach, was approved in 1964. It included two 17-story apartment towers with a total of 532 units and about 200 condominiums, some costing more than $1 million.
Conn and others succeeded in getting the state Coastal Commission in 1977 to insist on the rehabilitation of the two apartment buildings at 175 Ocean Park Blvd. as a condition of approving construction of another 153 condominiums, which began last summer.
"I must say that the endless delays in getting the rehabilitation work started has made me skeptical about government's ability to do good things for the community," Conn said, adding, "Poor people seem to have to wait forever for their housing, in contrast to people with money. At the same time, we are happy that there will be housing near the beach soon for low-income people."
But government officials who worked on the project said that the delays were not unusual in light of the complexity of resolving the differences of various competing interests.
City Manager John Jalii, who has been working for the city since 1974, said that he became convinced only in the past few months that the rehabilitation work would be completed.
"Had you asked me eight months ago if the project was going to go forward," Jalili said, "I would have had to say no. We were far from an agrement acceptable to us, the county and HUD. It is not easy to get everyone to agree. Fortunately, we finally reached an agreement."
Ann Sewill, housing program manager for Santa Monica, said that city employees stayed up "all night" last spring to prepare agreements on federal funds to refurbish the apartments.
"In the two years I have been working on the project," she said, "there was no foot-dragging to delay the project. It simply took time to satisfy each of the three governments involved that its interests would be protected."
She said the city wanted the project to be well run and the units rented to poor people for at least 40 years. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said, wanted flexibility to change the rental program to accommodate changes in federal law.
"In the end," Sewill said, "we were all satisfied with the agreement."
Nancy Cave, the Coastal Commission analyst who worked on the 1977 rehabilitation stipulation, said several factors contributed to the delays.
"While the stipulation goes back eight years," Cave said, "there was no final disposition on the project until 1983 because the city tried to withdraw its approval of the last phase of the condominium agreement with the developer. Because the rehabilitation work was timed to start with the beginning of the construction of the condominiums, that was a major delay."
The Ocean Park Redevelopment Project has had a tortuous and controversial history.
When first proposed in the 1950s, the city planned to build as many as 14 high-rise buildings on the 18-acre site. After a blizzard of lawsuits and the passage of the 1972 Coastal Initiative that restricted development on the beach, the city scaled down the project to include the two apartment towers and a three-story condominium complex of 200 units, with another 197 condominiums (later scaled back to 153) to be constructed later.
With the election of a new City Council majority of pro-rent-control activists opposed to extensive beachfront development, the city attempted to renegotiate the agreement allowing the 197 units, prompting a $23-million breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by the developer, Pacific Dominion Property Co.
The lawsuit was dropped when the city agreed to allow the developer to build 153 condominiums. The developer, in turn, agreed to develop a 5.9-acre park on the site and to rehabilitate and maintain 80 units and build 55 units of low- and moderate-income housing elsewhere in Ocean Park.