Thursday, August 18, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Lawsuit over Santa Monica parking garage tossed out on a technicality

Santa Monica wants to tear down one of its many parking lots to make way for affordable housing. Thanks to a missed filing deadline, it may get to.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Parking structure 3 in downtown Santa Monica got one step closer to its destruction, on Friday, after a judge issued a ruling tossing out a lawsuit aimed at stopping the city from demolishing the six-story garage to make way for affordable housing.

The ruling was based on a technicality: according to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, under which the lawsuit had been filed, the petitioner has 90 days after the initial filing to request a hearing. Lawyers for the petitioners, a group of business and property owners in Santa Monica, blew past that deadline by 22 days.

"I don’t really know that there’s any way around dismissal," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, almost apologetically, at Friday's hearing, conducted over the phone. Beckloff explained that he was bound by previous case law, which demands strict adherence to the deadlines as a way of making sure petitioners don't use CEQA to unnecessarily delay projects. "I’m bound by all these cases. I don’t have the discretion to say I don’t agree with them."

One of the attorneys for the business owners, Ellia Thompson, took responsibility for the error.

"In my 17 years of practice, I have never made such a mistake," she said at the hearing. She explained that she was working without a secretary for much of the pandemic. "I have struggled during Covid to stay on top of everything. I find it difficult to handle my cases... This requirement to file for a trial-setting conference, it slipped through the cracks."

Parking structure 3 is located about seven blocks from the beach, and one block from the 3rd Street Promenade, a pedestrian mall. It's also blocks away from a number of other parking lots — namely parking structures 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6. A study found found downtown Santa Monica has more than 1,000 free parking spaces on even the busiest of days. That number has risen over the last five years, thanks to the recent expansion of parking structure 6, as well as the use of ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft and the Expo Line, a light rail line that terminates blocks from parking structure 3.

The city has wanted to demolish parking structure 3 since the early 2000s, according to its website. The more than half-century-old garage is in need of seismic retrofitting, and the city deemed such an effort too costly since the lot only holds 337 parking spaces. In 2019, the Santa Monica City Council voted to start looking for developers to build affordable and supportive housing on the site of the lot.

After the California Coastal Commission approved the lot's demolition, the business owners, calling themselves the Bayside Owners Association, filed their CEQA lawsuit in June 2021.

"Throughout this process, the city has blatantly disregarded the interests and will of the public, including the thousands of residents, businesses, and visitors who regularly rely on parking structure #3 to serve as their everyday access to the beach, shops, restaurants, and offices in the bustling downtown area," the group says in its lawsuit. "The city's unnecessary drive to demolish parking structure #3 now — without an actual plan, developer, or funding in place for the mixed-use affordable housing project to follow — is premature and would invariably leave an irreparable, gaping hole in the downtown streetscape."

John Alle, the most vocal member of the Bayside Owners, could not be reached for comment.

Friday's hearing marked something of a reversal of fortune for the business owners, who had been given a sign of encouragement earlier this month when Judge Beckloff issued a temporary injunction against the city, halting the demolition. In that ruling, Beckloff wrote the business owners had demonstrated “some ability to prevail on the merits of its claim.”

On Friday, Bayside Owners' attorney Allan Cooper called the judge's ruling, which was initially issued as a tentative ruling, but finalized later in the day, as "very harsh."

"It throws out a case that, as you said, has some merit," argued Cooper. "I think the court should be very careful in doing that."

He added: "Missed dates come up all the time. That’s just part of life. Particularly in the Covid environment."

But lawyers for the city argued that the missed date was not an isolated incident and that "numerous procedural errors" have delayed proceedings.

"This was part of a protracted, intentional delay in order to further the individuals’ interest, the individuals behind this," said Susan Cola, the deputy city attorney.

Judge Beckloff appeared pained by the prospect of throwing out the suit on a technicality.

"There’s something that really bothered me working on this," he said. "I certainly don’t take this decision cavalierly."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...