Apparently History Matters

In its open letter denouncing Jeff Tumlin, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) not only objected to his use of the term “NIMBY” to describe the anti-development faction of Santa Monica politics, but also took issue with the statement in his bio that, “[f]or decades, Santa Monica politics had been dominated by NIMBYs…”

The SMCLC claimed that Tumlin was “dead wrong” about this, explaining that:

The development history of Santa Monica is one of rapid growth, with over nine million square feet of new development added during the period Mr. Tumlin cites. (Which greatly exceeded our 1984 General Plan.) No one can reasonably say that “NIMBYs” have stopped development in Santa Monica or “dominated” Santa Monica politics.

So history is not bunk after all; it’s important. Who is right, Jeff Tumlin or the SMCLC? I’d say there is some truth in both statements, but overall, both sides choose the trees they want to look at and miss the forest.

Has, as the SMCLC says, the development history of Santa Monica been “one of rapid growth?” Certainly from a perspective going back to 1875, or even 1940, the answer is yes, but Santa Monica’s growth since 1960, especially compared to that of the surrounding region, has not been rapid. Santa Monica’s population is roughly the same now as it was 50 years ago, while the population of Los Angeles during that time increased about 60%.

During those years, though, Santa Monica’s economy evolved from manufacturing-based (in the ’50s, Douglas Aircraft alone employed about 20,000 workers) to offices, and offices generally generate more employees per acre than factories. Santa Monica became even more of a jobs center. But again, the development of the formerly empty areas surrounding Santa Monica was much more “rapid.” (Think Century City, Westwood, and the Sepulveda, Wilshire and Olympic corridors — much more and faster development there than in Santa Monica.)

True, as the SMCLC says, Santa Monica approved 9 million square feet of office development (when the 1984 plan had predicted 4.5 million), but it wasn’t “during the period Mr. Tumlin cites” – it was in the ’80s, 25 years ago, not in the period he’s referring to (the period before the City hired his firm to work on the LUCE).

It was in reaction to those approvals in the late ’80s that a specifically anti-development faction appeared in Santa Monica politics, but it’s important to remember that when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981 it immediately “confronted the Growth Machine” (as described by William Fulton in the first chapter of his The Reluctant Metropolis). SMRR instituted a moratorium over development and ultimately enacted major down-zonings. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits the city gained from these actions. That’s why I say that in Santa Monica we’re all anti-development — I don’t know anyone in Santa Monica politics who doesn’t believe those down-zonings were successful.

All the subsequent fighting between the anti-development faction that emerged in the late ’80s and the traditional progressive wing of SMRR and other elements in Santa Monica politics that see the need for and benefits that can be obtained from development has to do with whether one believes that the down-zoned limits on development provide a good basic framework for development or if one believes that they are only a starting point for further reductions in allowable development.

Which brings us to the SMCLC’s question: can anyone “reasonably say that ‘NIMBYs’ have stopped development in Santa Monica or ‘dominated’ Santa Monica politics”?

My answer is yes and no.

The fact is, hard as it is to believe, that since construction of the Water Garden, the last of those 9,000,000 square feet, only one significant new office development has been built in Santa Monica; that was the Lantana project on Olympic (which totaled about 250,000 square feet of new development).

In the mid-90s Santa Monica began to experience growth in the housing sector, mostly downtown, but one can’t entirely attribute that growth to decisions made locally. The City lost a lawsuit in the early ’90s over its housing policies: the courts found that they were too restrictive. California also passed laws requiring cities to make the building of housing easier. As a result, the City had to liberalize its housing policies, regardless of local politics (although many Santa Monicans believe this was good policy anyway). Since then Santa Monica has seen considerable housing development, nearly all of it in commercial zones.

But housing development in Santa Monica (in commercial zones) has not been as controversial as commercial development; even the SMCLC’s signature piece of proposed legislation, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (later known as Measure T), did not limit residential projects.

As I see it, for 20 years Santa Monica has followed, in the big picture, sensible development policies: it has drastically reduced office development (which contributes the most to traffic congestion) and it has given the housing sector some time to catch up to the over-building of offices.

While Jeff Tumlin was incorrect to write that “NIMBYs” dominated Santa Monica politics (especially not “for decades”), those in the anti-development faction don’t comprehend how successful they have been. I find myself often telling my anti-development friends (and yes, I have them) that they should cheer up: they’ve won most of the battles.

But they don’t feel cheerful. That’s because the pendulum swings. The anti-development wave hit its high-water mark in 1999, when, with the election of Richard Bloom to City Council there was for the first time a majority on City Council from SMRR’s anti-development wing. For a brief period the anti-development faction “dominated,” but the anti-development majority began to fragment in 2001 when Ken Genser voted in favor of Target. The wave crested in 2003 when Michael Feinstein cast the decisive vote not to reappoint Kelly Olsen to the Planning Commission and by the middle of the decade most of the anti-development council members had found that a strict anti-development stance didn’t work. The LUCE process began in 2004 and for six years dominated land use politics. Now a backlog of projects fills the pipeline, and the anti-development faction feels beleaguered.

Let’s hope that everyone will stop calling each other names and start talking to each other about a Santa Monica version of “bipartisan” solutions. Growth and change are going to happen, and we need to channel those energies into productive results that are good for everyone.

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Apparently History Matters

  1. A key point you make is about the backlog of projects waiting in the pipeline. This seems to be lost or left out of the objections coming from SMCLC. Folks really need to understand that a lot of development was stalled during the lengthly LUCE process so it’s only to be expected that there would be a surge in applications for a while. It’s not a new normal. And those who continue to oppose new development need to stop wasting our time trying to revisit decisions about height, density and location of large developments that were made by the community in the extensive, inclusive LUCE planning process that they themselves participated in. Their voices are welcome, however, in helping us assure that those new projects provide generous community benefits and conform to best practices in design, sustainability and support for transportation alternatives.

  2. Thank you, Frank. As always, you provide facts to support your argument. (Who said “if you speak without facts you’re a demagogue” . . .)? I’m just going to attach your post to my letter to the Council in support of Jeff Tumlin’s body of work and his value to the City.

    (PS: As a history teacher, I always enjoy the historical perspective of the changing periods in our history as a community that I get from your writing.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s