Sign outside the Water Garden, a sprawling office complex in Santa Monica: Available space – 360,000 square feet.
That’s plenty of free space in a prime location just blocks from the Pacific Ocean, which features 17 acres of modern six-story buildings, fountains and basketball courts, a luxury gym, Italian and Brazilian marble hallways, restaurants and commercial space, and more. But so far no buyers.
Similar signs and no-taker situations no longer just line the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and other centers of Californian commerce; they have gradually become ubiquitous.
It is inevitable that the real estate investment trusts that own most of these buildings will realize – as some commercial building owners already do – that housing is the primary future use for the billions of square feet left by commercial corporations, the vast majority their employees have sent home work.
Some renovations like this one are already underway in Los Angeles. They often require zoning changes, but a bill now in the legislature should soon make commercial-to-residential conversion permits almost automatic. Because if these large buildings lie fallow for a very long time, their values decrease – and with it the real estate tax revenues that they generate for cities, districts and the state. The currently proposed bill would make the required zoning changes a “legal by law” matter, meaning that owners would only have to file one motion for the change to happen.
But all of this appears to have been achieved by several state senators, whose current housing package includes several revisions to laws that were defeated at the end of last year’s legislature, measures aimed at single-family neighborhoods.
The leader of this movement is still the recently re-elected Democratic Senator Scott Wiener from San Francisco, whose own district includes sections of Market Street (one of the city’s main thoroughfares) where vacancy signs advertise space in crowded buildings long ago from the high tech like Twitter and Mozilla, the precursor to the Firefox web browser.
This has little obvious effect on Wiener, whose crusade against single-family homes has been going on for more than four years, although few of his proposals were ever accepted.
He is neither intimidated by the many defeats his plans have suffered nor by the new reality with more than enough space in existing buildings to solve the country’s entire housing shortage of up to 3.5 million units.
So he revived his plan to allow 10-unit homes or condos on any lot almost anywhere in California with just a simple majority of city councilors, even if local voters pass measures that prohibit it. Wiener’s plan lost heavily last year as Senate Bill (SB) 902, but is back under the title SB 10. The bill prohibits reviews of such massive changes under the CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.
Also back is Wiener’s previously failed plan to provide new housing for low-income families on any property belonging to a religious institution, no matter how far it is from the main building of that church, synagogue, mosque or other institution. Nobody knows exactly how much land in California belongs to groups often bequeathed it, or where it is located. This amounts to unseen approval of almost anything.
It’s all part of this crusade against single-family neighborhoods that most Californians want to live in, but condemned the Viennese as “exclusive” and that he says they have “increased incomes and racial segregation.” By this he means that all of California should look like the crowded Castro District he lives in, full of old wooden potential fire traps.
Wiener apparently doesn’t care that when cities begin to reclassify R-1 neighborhoods into areas where 10 units can suddenly emerge on “every piece of land”, as its bill states, many of these neighborhoods could be flooded with developers, knocking on doors with fat bankrolls. It can become common for real estate to sell for much more than any current listing value.
On the flip side, all of the prefabricated, now vacant and easily convertible square feet in office buildings could eventually combine with California’s slowed growth to discourage new builds. Which could make the whole idea of a real estate crisis obsolete.
Send an email to Thomas Elias at [email protected].