Residents Uneasy Over Plan to House Homeless : Development: A church's neighbors say a plan to build two low-cost apartment complexes will increase traffic and crime.


A Santa Monica church is proceeding with plans to build affordable housing for the elderly and homeless families on its property, but residents of the area are concerned about the effect the project would have on the community.

The plan was announced by officials of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, at 11th Street and Washington Avenue, at a July meeting with neighbors. The church wants to build two affordable housing developments on church-owned land, said Rev. Donald Shelby, pastor of the church.

The proposal calls for construction of 80 to 90 apartments for the elderly at 11th Street and 18 to 24 units at 12th Street to provide temporary shelter for families in transition, Shelby said.

Two three-level underground parking garages will provide about 420 spaces for tenants and for the church's more than 2,100 members, according to the tentative plan.

Construction costs are estimated to run between $10 million and $12 million. The land the church would provide is valued at $7 million, Shelby said.

Church members last year formed Upward Bound House, a nonprofit organization, to look for state, federal and private contributions to fund the project.

Although the church's proposal has been well received by advocates for the homeless, it has come under fire by local residents who fear what the project would do to traffic and safety in their residential neighborhood.

Frances Thieriot, president of the Amend Assn., a nonprofit organization formed to monitor and evaluate neighborhood development in the Santa Monica area, said her group is concerned about the size of the proposal. She said it would set a bad precedent if the city were to grant the church any zoning variances to build the project.

"People are very concerned. Our point is that the Holiday Inn wouldn't be allowed to build next door and essentially we're talking about 111 units," Thieriot said.

However, K.J. Laessig, president of the Upward Bound House, said his organization is trying to design the project to meet city zoning codes. No plans or permit requests have been submitted to the city.

Nevertheless, Amend members said they plan to present the City Council with petitions and letters voicing their opposition to the granting of any zoning variances or amendments to the United Methodist Church.

"They're bringing in too many people, too many cars and too much pollution. They're planning to dump over a hundred families in an area that is already built up with people with cars," said Archie Hughes, an Amend member who owns two apartment buildings within two blocks of the proposed sites.

Shelby argued that the project would have little effect on traffic and parking because the homeless and elderly are less likely than others to own cars.

"I'm not knocking the people on this. But I think the housing needs that would be met by the project outweigh the other concerns," Shelby said.

Ken Breisch, chairman of the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, said his group has not taken a stand on the proposal, but he said members hope to work with the church and other neighbors to resolve any problems that might arise.

"I guess our judgment is still out on the specifics of this project. We would be concerned about the size of the project and especially in terms of its compatibility with the immediate neighborhood," Breisch said.

Others say the project could affect safety in the area.

Susan Freeman, a resident of the area, said she and other neighbors fear the transitional housing could attract drugs to the neighborhood.

"You can't monitor something like this. You can't keep tabs on it once it's entrenched," Freeman said. She believes that the problems would outweigh the benefits of the project.

But Shelby said the church will carefully screen potential tenants and monitor them after they move in.

"It's the same thing when people don't want a prison built in their back yards. They don't want anything that will jeopardize their safety and well-being and that's understandable," Shelby said. "But it's not a safety issue in terms of our intentions of the type of people that are going to be served."

Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, which provides social services for the homeless, said that people often have misconceptions about homeless families.

"The main reason they're homeless is because we're losing affordable housing. They've fallen out of the bottom of the affordable housing market," Rothstein said.

Vera Davis, executive director of the Low Income and Elderly United-Community Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization that operates a shelter for homeless women with children in a Venice neighborhood, said the church's proposal is "fantastic."

"Every good community provides for all segments of their community, and the poor is also there. If you don't make provisions for them you're going to find them out on the street. It's just as simple as that," Davis said. "People just have to open up their hearts and give the project a chance. You can't kill something before you let the people demonstrate how it will work."

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