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.

 

Getting philosophical about water

In California it’s hard to stop writing about water once you start, and after I posted last week’s piece about water rates, more thoughts bubbled to the surface. (Sorry.)

For one, what about the fact that opponents of the rate increase persuaded about a quarter of the city’s property owners to file protests against the rates? Under Prop 218, if a majority of them had protested, the rate increases could not have gone into effect. What if the organizers of the “no” campaign had succeeded?

It’s frightening. The Water Division would have gone into deficit. What might have happened then? It’s like in Washington where people play politics with shutting down government. It’s nihilism.

By any measure, Santa Monica is a well-run municipality. Elected representatives have made responsible choices over the decades, particularly in connection with infrastructure and essential services, like water. Going back more than a century we have had a citizenry with admirable public spirit that has voted time and again to tax itself to pay for what the city (and schools) need. What’s with all this anger and spite? You’re telling me that because traffic is bad Santa Monicans don’t want to pay what it costs to keep their water running?

And no, it’s not about enabling development and yes, Council Member Sue Himmelrich was correct when she said that water was underpriced.

Another thing that I thought more about since last week is whether the City should borrow money, by issuing bonds, to pay for water system capital expenditures. This is a possibility that the City Council left open when it increased rates.

I support municipal borrowing for infrastructure, but debt is not always appropriate. It’s like with any enterprise. Borrowing makes sense when a city needs to make large expenditures, too large to be paid for with current income or accumulated savings, to build assets that will have a long lifespan. Santa Monica voters did the smart thing a century ago when they approved bonds to pay for buying water rights and for the initial building of the system, because they didn’t have the cash.

But that’s not the case now: the system is built and for the most part capital expenditures are needed only to maintain it. It’s not a good idea to borrow money for routine expenditures, and that includes maintenance. The current capital plan, according to a staff report to City Council from last June, is to spend about $3.5 million each year, about 11 percent of the Water Enterprise Fund, to replace aging water mains.

The City has about 250 miles of water mains. Some pipes, made of cast iron, go back to the 1920s. Old cast iron pipes not only might burst, but they also rust inside and that reduces water pressure and flow. Typically it costs $3.5 million to replace 9,000 linear feet of pipe, a little less than 2 miles, with pipes made of more advanced materials, such as ductile iron or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

This pace may not be fast enough. Water mains may last a century, but replacing less than two miles per year will not recycle a 250-mile system in 100 years. As the pipes from the system’s big expansion in the 1920s hit the century mark, the Water Division may need to pick up the pace. But even so, it’s unlikely that the City will need to spend tens of millions of dollars at any one time. Is it going to make sense to borrow? We’ll have to see, but I doubt it.

Last week the City Council was considering rates for the next five years, and chose not to raise rates in years two through five by the 13 percent that Water Division staff had recommended. I agree with those council members who expressed caution about spending $6 million over five years on new water meters, money that makes up much of the difference between 13 percent and the 9 percent increase that council approved. I suspect, however, that the realities of maintenance will mean that higher rates will be required in the future.

Some opponents of the rate increases who want the city to borrow to pay for capital expenditures say that it’s not fair for them to have to pay for infrastructure that will be used by future generations. I discussed this argument in my last column, but the more I think about it the question raises philosophical issues. I have to ask: what are we doing here, in this city (and in this world), if not to leave it (or both) a better place?

When I moved to Santa Monica more than 30 years ago I received the benefit of all the investments prior generations had made not only in our water system, but also in streets, parks, schools, etc. It’s our turn.

And so what if we leave better public facilities for future generations? In my view, that’s something I’d be proud of, not resentful about.

Thanks for reading.

The pipes, the pipes, are calling: “Maintain us!”

I can’t guarantee that I heard every word uttered during Tuesday night’s City Council hearing on water rates, but two words that I didn’t hear were “deferred maintenance.” Too bad, because that’s what this is mostly about. Yes, we are doing good by using less water, and yes, that paradoxically causes a cash crunch for the Water Division that means we need to pay more for the water we do use. That loss in revenues, however, only accounts for a portion of the deficits the Water Division is facing.

The fundamental reason we need to raise water rates is that our system is aging and needs fixing. Even if we weren’t conserving water, rates would need to increase substantially to pay the costs of deferred maintenance.

The numbers are that with only rate increases equal to inflation (the baseline), the projected loss in revenue from 2013 levels over the next six years (through fiscal year 2020) is about $14.3 million. Over the same six years, the Water Division’s capital needs are projected at about $37 million. (The data comes from the Kennedy/Jenks “Water Rate and Revenue Plan” presented to City Council this month.) If you review the Water Division’s $37 million capital budget for fiscal years 2015 through 2020 (Table 4 in the Kennedy/Jenks report) you’ll see that relatively few bucks are for special projects, like a new booster pump station. Most of the expenditures are for maintenance, such as water main replacements and similar improvements, along with routine costs like vehicles and sidewalk repairs.

As has been typical with public infrastructure in America for the past 40 years, Santa Monica’s water system has been starved for maintenance because voters don’t want to pay for what they’re wearing out. Cast iron pipes are now nearing a century of use and need to be replaced. We shouldn’t be surprised. Santa Monica had a major water main break in 2002 and a serious sinkhole in 2007.

City of Santa Monica photo

City of Santa Monica photo

Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised, watching the video of Tuesday’s hearing, to hear members of my own Baby Boomer generation complain about having to pay more, and call for a bond issue to pay for this catch-up maintenance. They said it wasn’t fair that they might have to pay for a system that future generations would use. But then we boomers have never worried about getting a cheap ride on investments preceding generations paid for, without paying to maintain them and without making investments for the future. Hey, we’ve saddled the next generation with student loan debt; why not give them some water debt, too?

Speaking as one boomer, I don’t want my water rates to include interest on a bond for work that we can and should finance as we go if our rates include reasonable amounts for maintenance and replacement, and I’d like to invest reasonable amounts of money (piggybacking on state money that might be available, not to mention the settlement money the City receives from polluters) to increase our flow from wells and the reuse of gray water so that we can reduce the relatively costly (but still cheap!) water we buy from the MWD.

Of course, no one likes to pay more for anything, especially for something we all take for granted. The monthly increases are going to be trivial for a middle-class family (according to Table 8 in the Kennedy/Jenks report, the increase after five years will be about $11 per month for a typical single-family house, assuming a 20% reduction in usage and the 9% annual rate increases the City Council adopted), but certainly there are low-income people for whom even a small increase would be painful. The problem is, however, that you can’t build high-quality infrastructure if one requirement is that the actual cost must be affordable to people with the lowest incomes. You need to find another way to subsidize their water, or, even better, find a way to increase their incomes.

The rate increase naysayers did make some good points, however. One was that with everyone trying to reduce usage, both by investing on water-saving improvements and changing behaviors, it’s going to get harder in the future to respond to droughts by lowering consumption. This causes frustration from people who, after all, are doing the right thing. What it means, however, is that we’re going to need more investment, both public and private. In gray water systems, for instance. The good news is that if people make investments to reduce water usage, their usage will remain lower even when the drought is over, and they will not feel the full impact of higher rates.

Another point I agreed with, one made by Diana Gordon from the SMCLC and others, is that the City’s goal of achieving water self-sufficiency by 2020 is artificial and should not drive any policies. The goal is admirable for both ecological and financial reasons, but it is artificial not only because of the arbitrary date, but also because “self-sufficiency” is an artificial concept. What does self-sufficiency mean when much of the City’s “own” well water doesn’t lie under Santa Monica? Even to the extent it does, the water is part of a regional pool of groundwater that is replenished by regional surface water.

Santa Monica’s water needs and resources, now and in the future, are part and parcel of the water needs and resources of a still growing region. It’s artificial to think that Santa Monica could be self-sufficient in water or anything else.

Thanks for reading.

Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica and the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration

For my last post I reread parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to give me some perspective on what’s going on today in Santa Monica with anti-development politics. As perceptive as Davis was, however, it was also interesting to see, in hindsight, what he missed. For all of Davis’ insights, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of the time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Immigration hardly comes up in City of Quartz, but the year the book was published, 1990, was the highpoint of a demographic wave that started in the early ’70s, accelerated in the ’80s, and then subsided in the ’90s. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County’s then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county’s population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but also about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of county residents are directly tied to what should be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era—even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises that massive demographic change caused, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc.—you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that things will get a bit chaotic if you drop millions of mostly impoverished and poorly educated immigrants (who don’t speak English for God’s sake!) into a place that wasn’t expecting them.

It didn’t have to be this way. A century ago it was the nightmare of the Lower Eastside and similar places that led to demands to reform and redesign cities, as well as massive investments in social services, infrastructure and education. But many here in southern California for different reasons wanted to act as if nothing unusual was happening. On one hand you had activists who acted as if it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate, and on the other you had conservatives who wanted to ignore the whole thing and who certainly didn’t want to spend any money to deal with the situation.

The region survived the immigration wave, and may even prosper because of the work force it left behind, but the wave left us with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the true middle class. The other is low wages for working people—a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis. The native-born children of the immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can’t find places to live. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, etc., but that model blew up in the Great Recession. Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so.

So how does this relate to Santa Monica, which, of course, is still overwhelmingly Anglo and native-born? Flash back to 1979 when young activists in SMRR joined with elderly renters, many with radical backgrounds from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to save them from eviction when in Housing Crisis I rents skyrocketed and there was huge pressure to tear down apartments to build condos and offices. This coalition brought progressive government to Santa Monica. The sad fact is that today, however, many of those same SMRR activists, now grown old themselves, instead of harking back to their youthful radicalism and idealism to join with today’s young activists to build housing for the next generation, have joined with their age and economic cohort of (some, by no means all) boomer homeowners to keep young people from moving into Santa Monica.

It’s particularly ironic because the anti-housers today use rhetoric like that which homeowners back then used against renters when renters awoke from their slumber and got involved in local politics. Yes, why should we allow the building of apartments for young “transients” without “roots” in the community? You wonder if people today who use “preserving community character” to block the building of apartments know anything about how that phrase has been so identified in the past with racial and ethnic exclusion. (Thankfully, I don’t believe they do.)

Thanks for reading.