Santa Monica, post LUCE: slicing and dicing ahead

About 25 years ago laws designed to protect existing housing from demolition had made it difficult to build new housing in Santa Monica. Housing developers sued, complaining that Santa Monica was violating state laws designed to encourage housing. They won and the City had to revise its housing policies.

Santa Monica still wanted to protect existing housing, and the City devised a brilliant solution. City Council retained protections for housing in the neighborhoods, but enacted new zoning that allowed and encouraged housing in commercial districts downtown. It took a while for the new policies to have an impact because of the economic troubles of the ’90s, but by the end of the decade downtown developers were building significant numbers of apartments.

While most council members were happy with the new housing, some were not thrilled with the form it was taking. The developments were typically five-story buildings with ground floor retail, built with wood-frame construction above a first floor of concrete. Council members wanted more varied architecture and design elements such as courtyards that were open to the street.

The late Ken Genser was particularly concerned with these issues. He acknowledged that to allow for better design projects would need to be bigger; in fact the focus of his complaint was that developers were “slicing and dicing” projects to make them small enough not to be subject to discretionary development review, which then made amenities like courtyards difficult to provide.

I was reminded of this history as I watched the City Council’s hearing Wednesday night on the new zoning code. With planning staff and the council majority joining to reduce drastically the geography for Tier 3 developments, and to eliminate “activity centers” (on Wilshire today, everywhere tomorrow), expect to see more slicing and dicing.

It was only five years ago, with the approval of the new Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), that staff and the council were trying to encourage better developments, developments that would include public serving open-spaces, shared parking, grocery stores and other neighborhood serving retail, and other public amenities. To get these amenities (not to mention more affordable housing), the LUCE counted on developers to use Tier 3 and activity centers, because those larger projects would require development agreements. Development agreements get a bad rap, but it’s through them that the City can get more from developers.

I’m not one of those who believe that abandoning Tier 3 means no housing will be built. So long as interest rates are low and tenants will pay monthly rents of $4 per square foot, developers will find ways to build. But with the elimination of Tier 3 and activity centers, forget the public spaces, shared parking, etc.

Imagine you’re the owner of the property underneath a big grocery store or shopping centers on a boulevard. When the day comes when you want to turn the property over, what do you think you’ll do? Try to build something big, with a public plaza, shared public parking, and a supermarket? Or slice and dice your land and build boxes?

In much of the city, there is no longer even that choice. In the post LUCE environment, the rule will be “make no big plans.”

• • •

I also get the feeling that staff and some members of the council expect that by eviscerating the LUCE they will mollify the most vociferous voices against any development that doesn’t conform to idealized mid-20th century suburbia. Dream on. As these council members approve developments that fit the new standards, they will become the new targets of anti-development wrath.

Which makes me think of Ken Genser again. Genser was the original and most creative of all anti-development politicians in Santa Monica. Strongly protective of neighborhoods, instigator and supporter of various down-zonings, Genser nonetheless made distinctions. He supported the two most contentious developments that arose during his time on council, the original Civic Center Specific Plan and the downtown Target.

Genser never wavered in his belief in a low-scale city, but he ultimately concluded that those who were most adamant against development could never be satisfied. Each reduction in development standards only moved the goalposts. Near the end of his life Genser even opposed Measure T, the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic,” that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) put on the 2008 ballot.

The goalposts continue to move. For more than 30 years most Santa Monicans have agreed that Santa Monica should closely regulate development and the City has responded by restricting development. (We all know the facts, that there has been little development in Santa Monica.) But every few years a new crop of anti-development activists rise up and act as if they are the first people to notice that traffic is bad. How else do you explain that the LUCE, which anti-development groups, such as the SMCLC, lauded when it was passed, has now become, five years later, the embodiment of evil to the new group, Residocracy, and other new, anti-development voices?

As cities evolve, change is disorienting. But we wouldn’t have neighborhoods we love, like Ocean Park, Pico, or Wilmont, or now downtown, and tens of thousands of Santa Monicans wouldn’t live in those neighborhoods, if change hadn’t happened.

Change can enhance what we have already. Main Street is not even a boulevard, but consider what’s happened north of Ocean Park Boulevard. Various groups of residents opposed the apartments and retail that replaced the Boulangerie, the CCSM affordable housing at Main and Pacific (with its local-serving shops), and the Urth Cafe. But they all got built and they’ve turned those blocks into a better neighborhood center than what was there before.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thanks for reading.

Amending the LUCE: at what point does Santa Monica give back the awards?

The Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the city’s general plan in 2010. The LUCE then won statewide, regional and local awards, including “Outstanding Comprehensive Planning Award, Small Jurisdiction” from the California and Los Angeles divisions of the American Planning Association (APA), the “Compass Blueprint Sustained Leadership Award” from the Southern California Association of Government, and the David Cameron Award from the Santa Monica Conservancy.

The plan was also popular locally across the development-politics board. Not coincidentally, the Planning Director who oversaw the development of the LUCE, Eileen Fogarty, departed Santa Monica almost universally admired. Fogarty was especially lauded, again across the board, for her untiring efforts to involve residents in the LUCE process, especially residents who did not often participate in local affairs.

Why the awards and the popularity? The LUCE had “that vision thing.” The APA awards, for example, are intended to recognize “originality, innovation and [a] visionary approach to planning.” As someone who, as a columnist, watched, often critically, the LUCE’s six-year gestation period, the awards didn’t surprise me. It did take originality, innovation and vision to plan for inevitable growth in the post-sprawl context of Santa Monica, where urbanization has occurred and will continue to occur on a transportation matrix mostly defined in mid-20th century suburban terms.

The LUCE did so (i) by concentrating growth in a few areas that could accommodate change without disrupting existing patterns of city life, and (ii) by encouraging urban design that would create better places than the industrial brownfields and strip retail districts that new buildings would replace.

Five years have passed. It’s taken that long for a zoning ordinance update (ZOU) that would implement the LUCE to reach the City Council. Tomorrow night the council will commence a review and approval process for the ZOU that will continue into May and possibly June. The question is whether the vision of the LUCE will survive.

Although there are some thorny issues to deal with in the zoning ordinance itself, expect that most of the controversy at the ZOU hearings will involve proposed amendments to the LUCE. While some of these amendments are more-or-less technical, others implicate the core values of the LUCE. These amendments would remove from the LUCE the possibility of larger and more flexible developments, to create better public spaces, on Wilshire (by means of two “activity centers”) and elsewhere (by means of “Tier 3” developments). (I wrote about these amendments last month when they were before the Planning Commission.)

If the council accepts these amendments, then the council should offer to return the awards that the LUCE won, because the vision of the LUCE will be erased.

It’s not only what happens with these proposed amendments. As I discussed last week, the re-occupying of the Paper Made factory site has killed the LUCE vision for the industrial areas north of Olympic. But the new proposed amendments will eviscerate any creative ideas that were possible under the LUCE for the boulevards. With no activity centers on Wilshire and no Tier 3 on most of the boulevards, anything that is built there will be box retail or two-story office buildings, or, if a developer is brave enough to try even the Tier 2 discretionary process, the plain vanilla apartment buildings with ground-floor retail that the anti-development people say they hate so much. (I should also mention that the LUCE contains design requirements to make sure that activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not adversely affect adjacent neighborhoods.)

The LUCE was hardly perfect. Since before the council passed the LUCE I have been a relentless critic of the housing/office ratios it mandated for the old industrial areas; one plank of my campaign platform last year was to amend the LUCE to decrease the amount of office and increase the amount of housing. The LUCE is not holy writ. However, as a matter of process, aside from technical or otherwise small-scale amendments, any major substantive changes to the LUCE should require a process that has public outreach analogous to what took place during development of the LUCE (and no, it doesn’t need to take six years). Otherwise, concerted action by only a few members of the public might subvert the product of six years of input from many residents, including residents who aren’t regularly involved in these debates.

It is also a bit absurd for the City to consider these amendments in the context of the ZOU, since activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not even come under the zoning ordinance. That’s because they would require development agreements, which the zoning code doesn’t control and which require their own public processes. Activity centers even require the adoption of something called an “area plan.”

The council should deal with the ZOU now, and then initiate a public process to consider proposed major amendments to the LUCE. (Including, by the way, changing the housing/office ratios.)

Thanks for reading.

Reoccupying Paper Mate: there go the best laid plans

Re-using old buildings is a good thing; so why is it bad for Santa Monica that a new buyer of the Paper Mate factory is going to turn it into offices? It boils down to the three eternal verities of real estate: location, location, location. The factory sits on a crucial piece of land.

But before I get into that, if for you traffic counts are the most important metric for urban planning, stop reading now. You’re going to be happy with the new project, at least as it compared to the Hines project. Based on the EIR for the Hines project, turning 200,000 square feet of old factory into offices will generate (by 2030) approximately 1,900 car trips a day; the final Hines project was projected to generate 6,700.

No one, however, is going to notice the difference. There’s already about 2,000,000 square feet of commercial development in the immediate area and the 26th Street freeway ramps attract traffic from the eastern portion of Santa Monica and down into Venice and Marina del Rey. The existing traffic counts on Olympic and 26th Street are in the tens of thousands without Paper Mate.

Further, nearly half of the Hines project was going to be housing. Very little of the traffic associated with new residents would have been added to the afternoon outbound commuter traffic that drives us Santa Monicans crazy. With respect to commuters, you’re talking about a difference of 200,000 square feet of commercial development between the Hines project and the new one. Santa Monica has more than 10 million square feet of offices.

Moreover, Hines was going to pay for mitigation measures at many affected intersections. The new owners won’t need to do that because they have avoided anything that would subject their project to discretionary development review (although employers in the new project will have to implement some traffic demand management (TDM) procedures).

So, no surprise, traffic around 26th and Olympic will be miserable for a long time. What are we losing that was in the old project? (And, yes, I know, the old project could have been better.)

It’s hard to prove a negative—that what might have been would have been better than what we’re getting. There is also, the question of metrics: many Santa Monicans couldn’t care less about what we might have lost. They already have their jobs, or retirements, and housing, and they don’t care what happens to the old industrial areas that they have no reason to enter anyway. People who might have lived on the Paper Mate site won’t be heard from. (Some in the SMRR leadership will still wring their hands about the jobs/housing imbalance, but what’s it to them? Potential residents don’t vote.)

But there was a reason that people like Kevin McKeown pooh-poohed the idea that Hines would “walk away,” or that Diana Gordon, of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, assured us that Hines was “posturing” when the developer said it could reoccupy the factory. (This reminds me of the last big development battle in Santa Monica prior to Hines—over the downtown Target in 2001. Back then traffic-fearing residents killed what would have been one of the country’s first City Targets, but told us Target would be back with a plan to build somewhere else. Fourteen years later people are still driving outside of the city to buy a toaster, and who is it who complains loudest that there’s nothing in downtown that serves residents?)

But back to Paper Mate. Everyone who thought seriously about what should be built across the street from Bergamot Station (and I guess that includes McKeown and Gordon) knew that the old factory should be replaced with a development that, using the language the City used to express the public purposes of the project, created “a well-designed and financially feasible gateway project containing a complete community.”

We’re not getting that. Although it’s possible that people might be able to walk through the project (although the current drawings indicate that the site will be fenced in), and it’s possible that the City could build a sidewalk along the north side of Olympic connecting 26th and Stewart, there’s not going to be any plaza making the corner a gateway between the station and a new, active district. There won’t be any vehicles passing through the site either: one of the most beneficial aspects of the old project was the introduction of a street grid, as shown in this map, much of which was dependent on cutting streets through the Paper Mate superblock. A grid allows local traffic to be dispersed, taking pressure away from crowded arterials.

Map showing future streets planned for area in and around Paper Mate site

Map showing future streets planned for area in and around the Paper Mate site

But the biggest negative impact is that without the new streets, the LUCE and the Bergamot Area Plan, for most of the old industrial areas, are dead.

To understand why that’s bad, think about what LUCE is, or was. In 2004 Santa Monica began to update its land use and circulation plans to control inevitable pressures for growth. After six years of conscientious effort, the City adopted a well-coordinated plan to direct growth to designated areas (downtown, the old industrial areas, and boulevards) where it would have the least impact on residents. The LUCE is the plan that critics of development say Santa Monica doesn’t have. Turning the Paper Mate site into a gateway was crucial. Location, location, location.

Those development pressures haven’t gone away. Now, however, after the Hines debacle, if you’re a developer with land in the old industrial areas, or along the boulevards, why propose building anything with public amenities, anything approaching a “complete community,” with housing and new streets, anything that achieves the goals of the LUCE, when you can make plenty of money repurposing an old warehouse or factory, or building a 32-foot high retail box?

Thanks for reading.

Sic transit transit center

Well, the other shoe dropped on the Paper Mate site. Hines sold the property and now the old factory’s 200,000 square feet will become offices, with another level of parking being excavated under the existing parking lots.

Turns out that the paranoia of City Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis was warranted. During the signature gathering on the Residocracy petition they warned, in an op-ed for the Daily Press, that the alternative to the plan the City Council passed was not a better version of the plan, but a repurposing of the existing building as offices, which would mean thousands of car trips, no traffic mitigations, and none of the $32 million in community benefits that were included in the Hines plan.

I’m waiting to see how long it will take for someone to accuse the developers of being greedy because they aren’t building, across from the Bergamot Expo station, plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc., accessible to the public.

Not to mention the nearly 500 units of housing we’re not getting—housing that a lot of people who work in Santa Monica could use, housing that would keep them off the streets, so to speak, during commuting hours. But housing was not a plus for many people who opposed the project, and that explains why they’re happy with the new plan.

If the paranoia of O’Day and Davis turned out to be prescient, Council Member, now Mayor, Kevin McKeown turned out to be not so good in the prediction department. In an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Press, headlined “Calling for more housing from Hines,” he said that fears that Hines would “walk away” from the deal were unfounded; that “[s]uch a walk away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica.” Give McKeown his due; he’s not backing down now that Hines did walk away. Last week he told Santa Monica Next that, “[t]his project [the new one], even as adaptive reuse, will disappoint many of us, but the original Hines proposal failed in even more massive (and likely more permanent) ways to make appropriate use of a challenging site.”

I hope Mayor McKeown is right about the new plan being less permanent, but I doubt it. The “Pen Factory,” as the development is being marketed, will be around for a long time. Not only because it will take a while to amortize the considerable investment in the remodel (notably for underground parking), but also because once the offices are up and running and paying some of the highest rents in the region, the likelihood that an owner would shut the place down for the several years it would take to build a new project is slim. Expect that the Pen Factory will be there for 20 or 30 years at a minimum.

But McKeown was right that the Hines plan should have had more housing and less offices. I’ve been saying that since before the City Council approved the LUCE, which enabled the Hines plan, in 2010. The plan was flawed, and it may sound like blaming the victim, but I blame Hines as much as I blame anyone else for the plan crashing and burning. The Residocracy folks can’t help themselves, they’re going to oppose development no matter what, but Hines had a choice. Hines was warned as far back as 2010, by its friends, that if it added more commercial space and commuter traffic to the corner of 26th and Olympic, it was going to be in trouble.

Hines could have pulled its own chestnuts out of the fire. During the Planning Commission debate over the plan, Commissioner Richard McKinnon, with then-commissioner Sue Himmelrich’s support, proposed a reasonable alternative with less office and more housing. At City Council, Ted Winterer proposed much the same thing, and Tony Vazquez agreed with him. If Hines, at the commission or even at the council, had jumped up and grabbed this offer, the plan could have been approved at the City Council on a 6-1, rather than 4-3, vote.

That could have had a huge impact, because I doubt that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) would have joined Residocracy to oppose a plan that had had that much support among the SMRR-endorsed council members. Residocracy without SMRR might have been able to gather the signatures, but they wouldn’t have had much credibility looking ahead to November.

But then . . . maybe Hines didn’t care. The local Hines people put their heads, hearts and souls into the project, for six years, but headquarters back in Dallas probably figured they could find a willing buyer at a good price if the whole thing became just too complicated. Investors can’t wait forever. And Hines did follow the LUCE development standards, and they reduced their original project by 20 percent, so they legitimately thought they were playing fair. After the referendum, they had the right to feel that they’d never get a fair chance.

So, just how bad is the new project for Santa Monica? Pretty bad. But I’ll discuss how bad in a future post.

Thanks for reading.

Just what did City Council do about Santa Monica Airport Tuesday night?

Pending litigation (as described in my post last week) shaped what the Santa Monica City Council could do with the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) at the council’s big meeting Tuesday night. The shape of the airport that emerged was one of disaggregation. It was not for nothing that the council’s discussion of the issue didn’t gain traction until Mayor Kevin McKeown broke the airport down for analytical purposes into three parcels. By evening’s end the notion of the airport as a unitary place had disintegrated.

Various users of properties on the south side of the airport, from artists and theater companies, to Barker Hangar and the Spitfire Grill, have viewed themselves as part of SMO even though the land they sit on was designated as non-aviation land under the City’s 1984 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The council, however, by declaring that the non-aviation land is not going to be subject to airport leasing standards, conclusively severed these users and the land from the airport.

The decision on leases affects these users, but the most dramatic result of the disaggregating of SMO was council’s instruction to staff to fast-track the expansion of Airport Park by the addition of 12 acres of non-aviation land currently used for aircraft tie-downs. The new parkland will be the first manifestation of Measure LC, but more are on the way. There are other aviation uses in buildings on non-aviation land that will now be vacated, leaving room for more arts and cultural activities.

Continuing the disaggregation, the council made decisions that differentiate the Western, or “Quitclaim” Parcel, which includes about 2,000 of the 5,000 feet of the airport’s runway, from the “1948 Parcel” that constitutes the balance of the aviation land at SMO. The parcels are different legally. After World War II the federal government transferred (“quitclaimed”) its interests in the Western Parcel back to the City with no strings attached. The feds returned their interest in the 1948 Parcel to the City pursuant to an “Instrument of Transfer” that included the City’s promise to operate the land as an airport in perpetuity. The enforceability of that perpetuity clause is the subject of the City’s pending lawsuit against the FAA, a lawsuit that will take at least several years to resolve.

Depending on how that lawsuit proceeds, it’s possible that the City will want to close the Western parcel (and shorten the runway) before it can take action with respect to the 1948 Parcel. On that basis, responding to arguments from anti-airport activists, City Council instructed staff not to agree to rental agreements beyond month-to-month for any uses on the Western Parcel, while it allowed somewhat longer leases on the 1948 Parcel.

The most controversial action (assuming you’re for closing the airport) City Council took Tuesday was to authorize staff to negotiate leases on the 1948 parcel of up to three years (but ending no later than June 30, 2018). These leases can go to aviation businesses, but the council required that they include a clause allowing the City to terminate the lease early if it can close airport facilities. The leases may also include conditions that benefit the public.

This action was controversial because some anti-airport activists believe that allowing only month-to-month leases would hasten the closing of SMO. It’s hard, however, to understand this reasoning since existing businesses, including aviation businesses, would likely stay even if they could only rent month-to-month. (Oddly, some proponents of the month-to-month leases argued that this was a reason to favor month-to-month leases.) The availability of even short-term leases on the 1948 Parcel should attract new tenants that would replace departing aviation businesses (by now some of them must see the writing on the wall) and pay higher rents.

Month-to-month leases would not make closing the airport or ridding the local skies of jets come any sooner. It’s unfortunate that the City didn’t file its lawsuit five years ago, but while the lawsuit is pending, relying on it is the City’s best strategy. The alternative would be for the City to close the airport unilaterally; this would, however, result in the FAA seeking and undoubtedly obtaining an injunction that could freeze the airport status quo for a long time. Requiring only month-to-month leases now means nothing.

In fact, I would have gone farther with the leases than the council did. There are good tenants on the 1948 Parcel, in particular Typhoon restaurant, that want to invest in tenant improvements, but can’t do so if they only have short-term leases. I wish the council had instructed staff to consider longer terms for tenants that commit to large investments in improvements. It’s unlikely that any aviation businesses would want to make long-term investments while the City’s litigation is pending. There’s a reason the FAA has been doing whatever it can to keep the 1948 perpetuity clause out of federal court and it’s the same reason aviation interests spent almost a million dollars trying to pass Measure D last year: the FAA has no case.

Tuesday night the council took a rational, legally justified, step-by-step approach to the airport. It’s unfortunate that some anti-airport activists, justifiably frustrated by the negative impacts of the airport, feel betrayed because the council didn’t accept their argument about month-to-month leases. And yes, SMO will be open for at least three more years. But it’s rare that the best strategies and tactics involve charging blindly into the breach.

Thanks for reading.

When it comes to Santa Monica Airport, it’s hurry up and wait

Since becoming involved in Santa Monica politics 20 years ago I always heard, most cheerfully from the late Ken Genser, that the City would close Santa Monica Airport (SMO) in 2015. That’s because the City signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1984 that says that the City could do so on July 1, 2015. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. The City and its rights to its airport land are mired in litigation, litigation that affects what the City Council can do Tuesday night when it will consider the future of the airport land.

While there are various lawsuits swirling around the airport, there are two that crucially prevent the City from closing SMO or even drastically reducing airport operations on July 1. Both suits arise from or are complicated by mistakes the City made in the past 15 years; I say that to explain the predicament, not to cast blame, because it would have been hard at the time the mistakes were made to foresee the consequences.

The first case is the one that the City filed in federal court against the FAA in 2013 seeking “declaratory relief,” meaning that the City asked the court to declare what the City’s rights are to the airport land. Until the City knows what its rights are, specifically under a 1948 agreement with the federal government, it’s hard for the City to make decisions about SMO. The City wants these rights adjudicated in federal court rather than in an FAA administrative proceeding, and that’s why Santa Monica brought the action for declaratory relief.

Although the City has a strong case on the merits, it would be rash to act on the rights it believes it has (i.e., to close SMO) before proving those rights in court. Why? Because the FAA could then turn around and in effect become the plaintiff, bringing an action to enforce its alleged rights under the 1948 agreement in an administrative proceeding, i.e., in its home court. The FAA would undoubtedly be able to obtain an injunction stopping the City from doing anything with respect to SMO until the entire administrative process was resolved.

The City’s mistake with the lawsuit was not to take into account the potential impact of procedural delays. The FAA was able to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds; while that is now under appeal in the Ninth Circuit, that court is so backed up that a decision won’t be handed down until sometime in 2016. Who knows where it will go from there. With the benefit of hindsight, the City should have begun this action four or five years ago.

The second case is based on something that happened in 2003. In that year the City used $250,000 from a 1994 grant from the FAA to improve SMO. As Ken Genser always told me, the City was careful not to accept any money from the FAA after 1994 because the money came with strings—the City had to give “assurances” that it would not close the airport for 20 years, and the City didn’t want to do anything that would affect the 2015 date.

While the City believed that spending 1994 money in 2003 did not extend the 20-year term of the 1994 grant assurances, the FAA disagrees, and has initiated an administrative proceeding saying that the City is obligated to keep the airport open at least until 2023. This action will drag on through the FAA process for several years. While many believe the City’s only penalty would be to pay back the money, again there’s nothing stopping the FAA from seeking an injunction.

The upshot of all of this is that Santa Monica can’t close SMO until these actions are resolved. If the City tried to do so the FAA would probably get an injunction, because it can argue in court that closing the airport is a drastic measure that would cause irreparable harm (to aviation). No judge is going to allow an airport to close while the merits are still being litigated.

So where does this leave us Tuesday night? The staff report for the meeting has some good ideas, notably recommending that City Council instruct staff to initiate a process to turn land on the south side of the airport, which has been used for airplane tie-downs, into parks (beginning to fulfill the promise of Measure LC!), and at least one certifiably bad idea, having an election in 2016 about future uses on the airport land. Mostly, however, the staff report navigates the litigation logjam in a canoe of creative equivocation.

Among those residents who most closely follow the airport issue, the most controversial recommendations involve what to do with the leases of city-owned property at the airport. While there is general agreement, including from staff, that rents must be raised to market rates and that the City must receive rent from subtenants who currently pay their rent to the City’s leaseholders, there are many who believe that all leases at the airport should become month-to-month, hoping that this will hasten closure.

For the reasons discussed above, I don’t believe that making all leases month-to-month will lead to closing the airport any faster. It seems to me that the City can achieve more of its objectives, including increasing rents, by a flexible approach that allows for longer-term leases with appropriate conditions. What those conditions are is something that City Council members will likely grapple with Tuesday night, and which will continue to be an issue as leases are negotiated.

Thanks for reading.

How to build boxes on the boulevards

You may be familiar with the honor code of the Texas state legislature, as chronicled by the late Molly Ivins: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

After reading the staff report for Wednesday’s Santa Monica Planning Commission hearing on certain proposed amendments to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica’s general plan (LUCE), I’m thinking that the Texas code is not sufficient for Santa Monica. Maybe we need to add another disqualifier:

“If you can’t ignore panicked reactions to angry residents, you don’t belong on the Planning Commission.”

After a six-year process overseen by the Planning Commission, a process that involved remarkable public involvement, the City Council unanimously approved the LUCE in 2010. Back then the LUCE was popular. Even anti-development organizations then involved in Santa Monica politics, normally skeptical of anything emanating from City Hall, approved it.

So what happened? New anti-development groups, notably Residocracy, emerged. New politicians, such as Richard McKinnon, John C. Smith, Armen Melkonians, Phil Brock, and ultimately Sue Himmelrich, none of whom had been active in the LUCE process, also emerged. They hitched their wagons to the anti-development movement.

At the same time, battles were being fought over downtown hotels, battles that didn’t involve anything in the LUCE, but which provided endless fodder for opponents of development. Poorly considered preliminary plans for the Miramar got the Huntley Hotel involved, and the Huntley became a financial and organizational resource for the new anti-development players.

Then in early 2014 the City Council approved the Hines Paper Mate project on a 4-3 vote. The Hines project followed the LUCE guidelines closely, but it was unquestionably large, and suddenly the anti-development forces had, literally, a big target. Worse, because the one big failing of the LUCE was that it allowed for too much commercial development near Bergamot Station, the Hines project would have placed a lot of jobs at a location that was already overwhelmed with commuter traffic.

After defeating the Hines project, the anti-development forces looked for more targets. They found some on the boulevards. Wednesday night the Planning Commission will consider stripping from the LUCE a few mild encouragements for building something other than retail boxes on our boulevards.

Specifically endangered are two potential “activity centers” on Wilshire, one at 14th and one at Centinela. There the LUCE would allow for small increases in development standards to encourage multiple property owners to join together to make better places for mixed residential and commercial developments by sharing parking, open spaces, etc. Pretty innocuous, really, especially since anything built under the activity center designation would be subject not only to the intensive public review of a development agreement, but also to the preparation, through a public process, of a separate area plan.

Similarly, development opponents want to eliminate, from most of the boulevards, “Tier 3” developments, which allow for more housing to be built but which require a development agreement.

The opposition to development along the boulevards from a few people, concentrated in neighborhood groups, has been fierce. The staff report includes euphemistic statements like “substantial community input has been submitted questioning the continued appropriateness of the Wilshire activity centers,” or that the LUCE’s tiers of development and development review, have “created community concern.”

“Questioning the continued appropriateness?” “Created community concern?” Now nice. But we’re not talking about a tea party—or maybe we are.

There’s a lot of anger in Santa Monica these days about development, but there’s no indication that the passion, though at times deep, is widespread. After all hubbub over Hines, the hotels, etc., leading up to the November election, turnout was abysmally low. Yes, the two candidates running for City Council who got the most votes, Kevin McKeown and Himmelrich, ran on anti-development platforms, but factors other than their anti-development support were more crucial to their victories. As it happens, neither one of them got even one-sixth of the registered voters in the city to vote for them.

No one in Santa Monica politics has a mandate and no one bestows them. Elected and appointed officials should vote according their own analysis of the facts, using their knowledge and expertise, not according to who yells loudest.

And they should respect the process. The LUCE isn’t perfect. It should be amended. The development standards in the old industrial areas should be changed so that all new development in excess of what’s there now should be residential. This would respond to the chief complaint about the Hines project, that it had too much office development and not enough housing. But if we’re going to amend LUCE, let’s have a real process, not just the Planning Commission and staff sending something to council in response to squeaky wheels.

Back in 2010 when some of us were arguing against how the LUCE encouraged office development around Bergamot, because we wanted to see more residential development, staff told us not to worry because residential development would be located on the boulevards.

Now with this possible capitulation to the anti-development side, the City might abandon the possibility of building significant housing along the boulevards. But in the “be careful what you wish for department,” the anti-development folks should consider what this would mean.

When properties on our boulevards turn over, as they surely will, if property owners build to Tier 1 standards (up to two stories, 32-feet high) to avoid discretionary review, what do you think they will build? There are two possibilities:

• Retail boxes on top of underground parking. On Wilshire, think Whole Foods or Staples.

• Or maybe two stories of offices, with a bank or brokerage on the ground floor.

If you’re concerned about traffic, what do you think generates more car trips, a bank or a store, or an apartment building?

Thanks for reading.