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No Simple Act of Conversion : Church Wants to Turn Parking Lot Into Affordable Housing Site, but Some Neighbors Object

January 13, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Santa Monica church's plan to build affordable apartments for homeless families and the elderly has drawn objections from some residents, who say the 92 new units would increase crime and traffic in the neighborhood.

The First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica hopes to construct two buildings, constituting the largest such project in Santa Monica in the past decade, on two church-owned parking lots near 11th Street and Washington Avenue.

The church last year formed Upward Bound House, a nonprofit organization, to solicit funding and manage the housing.

The group's officials assert the project is consistent with development in the area and say they have taken steps to ensure it does not attract crime. But some nearby residents maintain that the infusion of new apartment-dwellers will cause severe problems.

"It will simply overload the neighborhood. It's way out of line in terms of population density," said Jean Sedillos, a First United Methodist church member and community activist. "The family facility has no limit on the amount of people who can live there. It could be three to four people per unit. The location might also attract a criminal element. It's only five blocks from the large homeless population in Lincoln Park."

The project calls for 70 apartments for the elderly at 11th Street and 22 units near 12th Street for homeless families in transition, according to Valerie Freshwater, Upward Bound House's director. The church would donate the land, valued at $7 million, she said.

Two three-level underground garages connected by a tunnel would be constructed at the site to provide a maximum of 531 parking spaces for residents and the church's 2,100-member congregation, according to the proposal.

The Santa Monica Planning Commission approved the project in October, but the City Council will hear an appeal on it Tuesday from a nearby apartment building owner.

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Upward Bound House has secured a $5.2-million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct the apartments for the elderly and an underground garage, but, as with most projects involving U.S. government funding, red tape may delay this project three or four years.

About $1.8 million in church contributions, corporate and foundation grants, and individual gifts has been raised for the apartments for homeless families and the second parking structure, but the church needs an additional $2 million to $3 million to proceed. Upward Bound House officials say they are confident that construction will begin in the fall.

That is, unless neighbors persuade the council to override the Planning Commission's approval.

Aside from their complaints about safety and the project's density, some neighbors wonder if the church is using the project to enlarge its congregation.

They question the church's motives in building such a large subterranean parking complex, which is an anomaly in a quiet residential neighborhood.

"The church wants the extra parking to attract extra members, which brings in more dollars," said Erika Willhite, organizer of a neighborhood petition with about 120 signatures of those opposing the project.

"Without the affordable housing tacked onto the proposal, the Santa Monica City Council would never in a million years have approved this parking project," Willhite said.

Countered Upward Bound attorney Chris Harding: "It's hard to believe there's going to be a mass conversion to Methodism because of the extra parking."

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Upward Bound House maintains that the project addresses two concerns: parking problems in the neighborhood during church services and functions, and the need for affordable housing.

To allay neighborhood concerns, Freshwater said, a detailed security plan has been developed with two private security firms in conjunction with the Santa Monica Police Department. The plan for the homeless family facility includes strict curfews and visitation rules, a comprehensive screening of prospective residents for drug and alcohol problems, and ensuring that staff members are on site to handle neighborhood complaints.

"And please remember, these are families who often become homeless because of low income or loss of a job; they're human beings, they're not animals," she said.

As for the density, Freshwater said, the 70 units of elderly housing will have one to two residents in each apartment. The transitional family building will have only 22 units, a level the neighborhood can easily handle, she said.

Because of a three- to four-year waiting list for affordable apartments in Santa Monica, Freshwater said, homeless families are especially desperate.

"There is a crying need to provide shelter for families who are temporarily homeless."

Said Vivian Rothstein, executive director at the Ocean Park Community Center, a homeless service: "Converting the surface parking lots of large religious organizations into affordable housing and building garages underground is an . . . extremely creative approach to the homeless problem."

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