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The Changing Face of Santa Monica : Neighborhood: Residents struggle to preserve small-city life style threatened by high-priced homes, commercial development.

October 15, 1989|LINDA FELDMAN | Feldman is a free-lance writer who lives in Santa Monica. and

Men were warned to blindfold their women while passing through Santa Monica at the turn of the century because it was such a tough town. Saloons were everywhere, and park benches were "strewn with unsavory characters."

According to the history books, a well-to-do citizen led the fight to close Santa Monica's bars by offering to pay the city what it would lose in licensing fees. He won the fight, and Santa Monica left its frontier reputation behind.

And today, Santa Monica residents are fighting still, struggling to preserve a quality of life that is quickly disappearing because of high-priced homes and commercial development.

Not only are traditional neighborhoods being disrupted by new building and heavy traffic but new home buyers tilt the city's old economic balance toward the wealthy.

The 96,000 residents of Santa Monica like the 3-square-mile city just the way it is, and if it were up to some they would close its gates to protect the pleasures of small-city life.

Once Quiet Community

They enjoy their 15-plus-mile bicycle paths, four-minute emergency response from police and fire departments, two hospitals, a college, a thriving art community, a public bus system and a pier with a carousel.

When Roy and Maxine Naylor moved to the Sunset Park area of Santa Monica in the 1950s, Santa Monica was still a quiet ocean-side community.

The Naylors raised four children in a California bungalow they bought for less than $20,000. Today their children cannot afford to buy a home in the neighborhood they grew up in, where prices now start at $400,000.

"I wish we'd bought property when it was cheap," Maxine Naylor said. "I'm amazed at values now."

The Naylors have remodeled their home three times, enclosing a porch and adding onto the kitchen. Many residents choose to remodel rather than move because of the familiarity of the neighborhood. "Almost half of the people who moved in about the same time we did are still here," she said.

Red Erickson has been selling real estate for 26 years from his Montana Avenue office, and remembers that the now-costly homes of Sunset Park were tract homes developed on open fields for the Douglas Aircraft workers.

Today, Sunset Park is one of Santa Monica's two solidly residential areas, albeit the less prestigious community. The prime real estate area is the exclusive north of Montana section, where former $30,000 homes now sell for an average of $750,000 and what was once considered high-grade housing at $50,000 now sells for $2 million.

A house on La Mesa Drive, considered the most expensive street in Santa Monica, recently sold for a record $4 million. This street, where comedian Mel Brooks and actress wife Anne Bancroft live, recently had a bargain for under $3 million dollars, but that's the lowest-priced home in the area.

Erickson said there are currently 55 houses for sale over the $1 million dollar level, and they are all north of Montana.

Who's buying these houses?

"My last eight sales have been to developers (who often tear down the existing and build a new, bigger home for resale) and buyers of Korean, Chinese and Japanese descent," said John Richards of Jon Douglas Co.

"First-time buyers are priced out of the market, because sellers can't resist the all-cash deals or the 50% down sale," he said. "Sellers feel secure with contingency-free offers. Even physical inspections and termite reports are being waived."

Also driving home prices up is the fact that Santa Monica doesn't have a large housing stock. Kenyon Webster, principal planner for the city, reported that "of the 47,000 housing units in the city, only 7,700 are single-family houses. The remaining 78%, according to a 1980 census, are renter-occupied."

That number is changing monthly, because of the removal of rental units by building owners fed up with the low return on apartments under the city's strict rent control laws. Owners are either leaving their units vacant or giving them to family members. Some are being torn down and rebuilt as condominiums.

Rent-controlled apartments range from $235 for a one-bedroom unit to $500 for two bedrooms.

Another prime residential area is north of Wilshire and west of 22nd Street, where streets have college names and houses sell for $800,000 on Berkeley Hill. A tear-down will sell for about $600,000, while a livable house can still be bought for $700,000, Richards said.

Condos Next Choice

If a buyer still wants to live north of Wilshire but can't afford a house, Richards said condos are the next affordable housing.

"But there aren't too many new ones. A single-level, two-bedroom, two-bath conversion north of Wilshire is selling between $260,000-$275,000. A townhouse built after 1982 is in the high $300s-low $400s. . . ."

Tom and Caroline Carroll moved to the Sunset Park area a year ago with their 8-year-old son after renting in West Los Angeles. She's a facility planner at UCLA, and he's the executive director of the new 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica's revitalized downtown area.

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