“Are we there yet?”

With the Santa Monica City Council’s action last week approving the new zoning ordinance, leaving only a pro forma second reading to finalize the new law, it looked like eleven long years of planning would soon come to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was finally more glare than glimmer.

Slow down. We’re not there yet. Just when you think it might be safe for Santa Monica government to spend more time and resources on something other than responding irrationally to bad traffic, the anti-development group Residocracy is contemplating, dare I say threatening, a referendum on the zoning ordinance.

That glare that looked sunny turns out to be oncoming headlights.

According to a Lookout article headlined “Santa Monica Slow-Growth Groups look to Public Vote on Development Issues,” Residocracy is polling its members on whether they want to take to the street to gather signatures to overturn the new zoning law, and the group’s founder Armen Melkonians expects they will say yes. (Who’s going to say no?)

Melkonians told the Lookout that the new zoning, though approved by the council’s anti-development majority, “‘still creates density.’” “‘Are we going to grow Santa Monica,’” he asked, “‘so it doubles its population?’”

Well, the answer to that question is no, or at least not until a few generations or even centuries have passed. I mean, even if Santa Monica adds all of the 4,955 housing units predicted under the LUCE by 2030, that’s only about a 10 percent increase in the city’s stock of housing units. That’s unlikely even to result in a 10 percent increase in population, however, because for decades the average number of people living in each housing unit in Santa Monica has been in decline.

Even if—as Melkonians fears—Santa Monica should add more than 4,955 units, say, twice that many, by 2030, a 20 percent increase, and even if each percentage point increase in units translated into a percentage point increase in population, well, can someone do the math? How long would it take to double the number of housing units if there was a 20 percent increase every 20 years?

In any case a while, but any significant population increase is unlikely. To give some perspective, Santa Monica’s population in 1970 was 88,289. In 2010, after decades of purported “massive overdevelopment,” it was 89,736. (I know that estimates since the 2010 census have added a few thousand more residents, but the history of those population estimates is that they get debunked when the decennial census comes around. The estimates focus on the number of housing units, but historically haven’t take into account how many young Santa Monicans leave town each year rarely to return.)

Okay, I get it—surely Melkonians was being rhetorical. But that’s what happens when you start asking people to sign petitions. If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of a local referendum campaign must be any sense of reality.

Residocracy isn’t the only group talking about going to the voters. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), Santa Monica’s more establishment, less populist, anti-development group, is considering a Version 2.0 of the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), their unsuccessful 2008 initiative. SMCLC wants to give voters a veto over “large projects.”

Based on an open letter to supporters that SMCLC leadership published last week, it does not appear, however, that SMCLC wants to join in an effort to overturn the zoning ordinance. For now at least, based on the letter it appears that SMCLC leadership is celebrating the new law, and especially the reductions in the scope of the LUCE, as the product of the anti-development majority SMCLC helped elect last November.

This makes sense, since the SMCLC leadership has long ties to councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer and they view the new zoning law as an achievement.

But indications are that SMCLC wants to bring back a new version of RIFT. SMCLC has never trusted the City Council or planning staff, and according to the letter to supporters, “large projects must be subject to a resident vote.” SMCLC’s co-chair of SMCLC, Diana Gordon, told the Lookout that the group would support a measure like RIFT. SMCLC touted the fact that RIFT garnered more than 18,000 votes in 2008. (The problem for SMCLC was that nearly 51,000 Santa Monicans voted that year.)

Of course, as Melkonians acknowledged to the Lookout, the point of having votes on developments is to scare developers away. While according to him, “only the best projects would go through,” the opposite is true. Developers and landowners will build to the lowest common denominator, slicing and dicing their projects to slip under whatever the voter-approval threshold is. It’s strange to hear a group like SMCLC, which I believe honestly wants better projects to be built, promote voter control as a way to get them.

SMCLC blames RIFT’s loss in 2008 on, as Gordon told the Lookout, its being “‘outspent in a deceptive opposition campaign.’” “Deceptive” is in the eye of the beholder, but the last several elections, notably the votes in 2014 on Measures D and LC, if anything show that money doesn’t mean much in Santa Monica elections. Beyond the merits of any thing or person on the ballot, endorsements are what count. In 2008 most of the well-respected elected officials in and around Santa Monica opposed RIFT, and SMRR was neutral.

Promoters of new anti-development referendums, whether to overturn the zoning law or to make developments subject to popular vote, would no doubt base their campaigns on their conviction that the views of voters have changed.

We’d find out.

Thanks for reading.

Can Santa Monica regulate emissions at SMO? Let’s find out.

Even if planes and jets made no noise, emitted nothing harmful, and never crashed, I’d still want to close Santa Monica Airport (SMO). Why? Because the airport and its mile-long runway, which the City owns, should be a public park and cultural facility that everyone can use instead of a privatized facility that benefits only a few users of private planes and jets. For this reason, I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing technologies that might make the airport a better neighbor by making flying over neighborhoods less objectionable, such as by making aircraft quieter or cleaner. I’ve been more interested in figuring out how to close the airport to build the park.

As we know, however, closing SMO is complicated, because of the regulatory powers of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not mentioned a tangled legal history. Briefly put, the City’s position is that as of July 1 it will have the right to close SMO, but proving that in court is difficult. If the City simply tries to close SMO, or does something the FAA considers equivalent to closing it, the FAA will likely get an injunction freezing the status quo, and begin its own administrative proceedings, where it has all the advantages, to determine the City’s rights.

The City wants the issue adjudicated in federal court, where the playing field will be more level. For that purpose the City brought a case in federal court in 2013 seeking a “declaration” of what its rights are. The FAA, not eager to have an independent federal judge decide the issue, got the case dismissed on procedural grounds. The question whether the City can get a decision from a federal district judge is now being decided in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision not expected until 2016.

In the meantime, the City Council in March gave direction to staff to take various actions after July 1 designed to limit impacts of aviation uses at SMO and to enhance non-aviation uses—notably by converting twelve acres currently being used for aircraft tie-downs into parkland and by allowing non-aviation uses on the south side of the airport to negotiate longer term leases for the use of city-owned properties.

One thing the City Council did not do was follow a recommendation from the Airport Commission to add limits on aircraft emissions to leases to aviation businesses. The council followed the advice of City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who gave her office’s opinion that federal legislation preempted any action the City would take regarding emissions. The commission and other supporters of emissions controls have, however, made the counter-argument that provisions in the City’s 1984 settlement agreement with the FAA allow the City to regulate emissions if the City acts before the 1984 agreement expires on July 1.

Now, however, City Councilmember Terry O’Day has put the issue back on the council’s agenda: he’s added an item for tomorrow night’s council meeting requesting consideration of an ordinance and leasing standards that would limit allowable emissions of air pollutants from aircraft and other sources at SMO.

I am a lawyer, but I’m not going to pretend to know enough about federal preemption law and the specific laws applicable to aviation to venture an opinion about who is right on the preemption issue. However, I’m not surprised O’Day is bringing this up.

O’Day is a veteran of the environmental movement. I remember him telling me, during the election campaign in 2012, before the City had decided on the bold move of suing the FAA in federal court, that he thought that pollution controls, which have greatly expanded in importance since the City battled the FAA in 1984, could be the City’s ultimate card to play against the FAA. Environmental science has shown how pollutants in the air are more dangerous than previously thought. As O’Day has reminded me, the need to reduce the negative health impacts of air pollution is what gave the environmental movement the ammunition it needed to begin to force the clean up the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Again, sorry, no opinions here on what can or should be done. Like a lot of people I’ll be listening to the discussion. If I can, I’ll try to sort things out in a future blog.

• • •

Speaking of the airport, and battles over the airport, readers will probably recall that after the aviation industry filed its initiative (ultimately called Measure D on the 2014 ballot) to take control of SMO away from the City Council (and for all practical purposes preserve the status quo there forever), a group of eleven Santa Monica residents went to court to try to prevent the initiative from reaching the ballot.

It was a well-motivated move, but one that ultimately foundered because it turns out that it’s near impossible to prevent a measure with enough signatures from getting on a ballot in California. Even worse, a judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay $31,525 to reimburse some of the aviation industry’s legal fees, on the grounds that the lawsuit prejudiced the industry’s rights to free speech. This is a hardship for many of the plaintiffs, and for a couple of months a campaign has been underway to raise money to help them pay the bill. (As it happened, of course, Measure D lost big at the polls (after the aviation industry spent almost $1 million exercising its free speech rights!), but that doesn’t help the plaintiffs out—they are still on the hook.)

It now turns out you can help out the plaintiffs and get some fine art for your walls.

On May 3 the Santa Monica Eleven launched an online art auction that runs two weeks—until May 17.

Renowned artists, painters, photographers, and sculptors from Santa Monica, Venice and London, have furnished artworks for the auction. These works include Laddie John Dill’s Ariel Perspective, Gregg Chadwick’s The Hum of Time and Steve Bernstein’s The Roofs of Rye, as well as cartoons from award-winning satirist Tony Peyser. And a lot of other good stuff at prices for any art collector’s budget.

To view the art and take part, click here.

Remember, though, the auction closes this Sunday, May 17.

To donate to the Santa Monica Eleven directly click here.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Rejoice. Our long municipal nightmare is (almost) over.

Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will likely make the final substantive decisions on the update to the City’s zoning laws. The update process began in 2010, when the council passed new land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) of the general plan, and the new zoning was intended to implement the LUCE. It’s been a slog, and instead of a bang, the whole thing is ending in a desultory whimper. No one seems happy—neither those who want more housing built, nor the Residocracy folks who are threatening a referendum to overturn the new law.

Nonetheless you can be happy about something. Our long municipal nightmare is over. It’s been eleven long years since work began on the LUCE, but when the council (in June) gives the zoning ordinance its final blessing we will finally have new land use policies in place for most of the city.

Yes, it’s taken eleven years, three city managers and three planning directors, but, to borrow another metaphor from a certain era, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think about it. It took a little city of 90,000 people eleven years to figure out how the city should evolve for about 20 years. And Washington is gridlocked?

I remember when this all began, in 2004. Back then Councilmember Pam O’Connor voted to begin the LUCE process only when staff assured the council it would take only two years. It should have taken only two years, since it was obvious that there were only two places to put new development, in the old industrial areas and on the boulevards. But with LUCE we managed to spend a few years analyzing “opportunities and challenges” and discovering “emerging themes.”

The process was at times poetic, and the best parts of the LUCE are poetic, but now the poetry has either been obliterated by events or is being removed from the LUCE with the nodding approval of those who were supposed to have believed in the LUCE the most: planning staff and councilmembers who voted for it. Plans to turn the industrial areas into vibrant neighborhoods are dead with the reoccupying of the Paper Mate site. With staff and a majority of councilmembers agreeing to remove Tier 3 and activity centers from most of the boulevards, we’re not going to get anything on the boulevards beyond box retail, two-story office buildings, and generic apartment buildings. What’s left in the LUCE? Not much that justified a six-year visioning process.

(The most disheatening aspect of the whole thing is the capitulation by planning staff. In tomorrow night’s staff report someone had the poor taste to remind everyone that the purpose of the activity centers was to “foster dynamic spaces by enabling the creation of mixed-use development at transportation crossroads on parcels of sufficient size to support creative design and to provide active and passive open space, affordable and market-rate housing, and shared parking facilities.” All of this “poetry” would, of course, only come after a process, called an area plan, to make sure that anything built would be appropriate for the context. But staff and a majority of councilmembers no longer trust themselves or their future replacements to do good planning, and they’ve caved, throwing activity centers out because they might allow development “that could be considered significantly out of scale.” Anything “could be.” Eleven years take their toll, but this is embarrassing.)

For all that’s left of the LUCE, the City could have accomplished just as much by drafting a specific plan for the industrial areas and by updating the zoning on the boulevards within the parameters of the old land use element. As for protecting the neighborhoods, little development was going on in the neighborhoods in 2004 and despite fears and fear mongering little is happening now. Why? It’s ironic, but ever since Costa-Hawkins went into effect in 1999 use of the Ellis Act to tear down old apartments has drastically decreased as apartment owners opt to charge higher rents when vacancies occur, upgrading when they can make money doing so. And the LUCE didn’t even deal with downtown—we’re still in the midst of that specific plan. A new circulation element? That could have been done separately.

But—at least it’s over, right? Hmmm. The LUCE is supposed to last until 2030. If it takes eleven years to update a land use element and draft a zoning ordinance, does that mean we need to start the whole thing again in 2019?

Thanks for reading.

Love the tourists. Not the short-term rentals.

One of the reasons I’ve loved living in Santa Monica for 32 years is that it’s a tourist destination. I’m on the Promenade nearly every day and I still get a kick out watching visitors take family pictures in front of the dinosaur topiaries.

I’m fortunate often to be a tourist myself. As I love being the recipient of hospitality when I travel, I’m proud that Santa Monica has such a long history of sharing itself with the world. Regionally, we have the most reachable and accessible beach for 10 million or more of our Southern California brothers and sisters, and it’s a badge of honor that we hold the beach in trust for them.

And let’s face it—we in Santa Monica profit from being hospitable and from maintaining our little gem as a desirable place to visit. A lot of people make their livings in the tourism business, and a large portion of our municipal budget comes from tourism, much more than the additional money we spend to provide a safe and clean environment for visitors.

So when I say that I hope City Council will tomorrow night take strong measures against the kind of short-term vacation rentals that websites like Airbnb promote, I’m not saying so because I have any animus towards visitors. Just the opposite. I want the City to continue to prohibit some short-term rentals and closely regulate others because they are a threat to what Santa Monica is before it’s a tourist center and to part of what makes it so attractive in the first place: a genuine community.

We don’t want Santa Monica to become depopulated and to exist only for tourists, which is what has happened to Venice, Italy.

Santa Monica, along with the region as a whole, also has a housing shortage. The City has policies that put housing in a privileged position: residential zoning to protect housing from being turning into commercial uses, and preferences for building housing in commercial zones. If we allow houses, condos and apartments to be turned into the equivalent of condos at a ski resort, we both reduce the supply of housing, raising costs, and commercialize neighborhoods.

Planning staff has given City Council a more than 200-page report for tomorrow night’s hearing, much of which consists of analyses that various organizations and periodicals have prepared about the boom in short-term rentals and the “sharing economy” in general. The reports, particularly those that focus on the Los Angeles region, show that short-term rentals are getting out of control, with companies buying apartment buildings and turning them into the equivalent of hotels.

The staff report is thorough, but it can get confusing. There are a lot of “defined terms.” I found that the best way to understand the situation is to focus on three facts: (1) that nearly all “sharing” arrangements that companies like Airbnb market now in Santa Monica are illegal under existing law; (2) that existing law allows certain sharing arrangements that are both traditional and beneficial; and (3) that for all the noise you might hear from the short-term rental industry that Santa Monica by regulating short-term rentals is preventing residents from participating in the sharing economy, the ordinance staff has proposed would actually expand rights for sharing.

Re: Point 1, the reason that nearly all deals currently promoted through sites like Airbnb are illegal is that the City has long had a ban on home and apartment rentals of less than 30 consecutive days. This covers all kinds of rentals.

Re: Point 2, the reason existing law allows sharing arrangements that are traditional and beneficial is the flipside of Point 1: existing law allows rentals, not only for complete apartments, but also for boarders, for 30 or more consecutive days. Existing law also allows for various non-cash sharing arrangements.

The starting point is that renting out a home or apartment for less than 30 days is illegal. Re: Point 3, staff is in fact proposing a liberalization, to allow “home-sharing rentals”—meaning rentals for less than 30 days if (and only if) at least one primary resident is present. This makes sense. If you have a spare room, why shouldn’t you be able to rent it out for a few days, just as you could to a longer-term boarder, so long as you’re living there, too?

There’s one area where I wish the City might go further, which would be to allow bona fide residents to rent out their places on a short-term basis when they are out-of-town, but only for a maximum of, say, 30 days a year in the aggregate. This would enable people to make some extra money without reducing the supply of housing or commercializing the neighborhood. However, on reading the staff report, which includes accounts from cities that have tried to do this, it seems that this kind of distinction is too difficult to enforce, at least at present. Perhaps in the future this could be looked into, but for now it’s more important to get the short-term rental situation under control.

Another issue that people have raised is whether people who own second homes should be allowed to rent them out. (Think again of ski condos.) The answer has to be no—if we allow people to make money from their second homes we’d only be encouraging more second home ownership here, which is not consistent with the City’s housing policies.

Thanks for reading.

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.