Village Trailer Park: Politics and Planning and Planning Politics

It seems like a year in S. M. P. T. (Santa Monica Political Time), but it was only a week ago that the City Council approved the Village Trailer Park (VTP) project. I doubt if my saying this will make anyone on any side of the arguments over the project feel any better, but its approval in some form similar to what was approved was inevitable.

The reasons were state law and the city’s needs for the future development of the property.

Regarding the first point, it’s been often pointed out that under state law the developer, Marc Luzzatto, had the right to go out of the trailer park business. I recently read that there used to be 11 trailer parks in Santa Monica, back in the days when towing an Airstream behind the Studebaker was a popular alternative to motels for America’s on-the-road adventurers. At some point since then operating a trailer park became a not very profitable business, and the VTP is the last privately owned trailer park in Santa Monica.

However terrible it is for people to lose their homes, a misfortune that has befallen thousands of Santa Monicans who have lost their apartments over the decades, ultimately under this state law the residents of the trailer park had no rights to stay there beyond the benefits they would receive on relocation. (I have a lot of sympathy for people who lose their homes, not so much for people who use the plight of people losing their homes to stop a development they would oppose no matter what it replaced.)

Luzzatto’s right to clear the property for a new use was, however, only part of the story – the next question was, what could he then do with it? A developer’s options for developing a property are always dependent upon whatever development standards that local government imposes (or can impose). In the case of the VTP, in 2007 Luzzatto agreed to delay evicting any residents indefinitely in return for the City’s promise to negotiate a development agreement with him in good faith.

At that point, the City had to make a choice. Either it could grant Luzzatto the minimum rights to develop the property so as not to violate the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment, which would have resulted in some kind of warehouse or big box retail project, or it could grant him rights to build something more substantial that would spin off benefits the City wanted, such as new streets, and create development that the City actually could use, namely housing, and along the way generate less traffic than the warehouse or store.

While this was going on the City was developing the new Land Use and Circulation Elements of its general plan (the LUCE), and even if you have not read a word of the LUCE, a quick look at the pictures would tell you what choice the City was going to make.

And when I say “City”, I ultimately mean the City Council, because the council approved the LUCE (unanimously) and sooner or later four council members were going to agree on a plan like the one that was approved last week.

This doesn’t mean that the planning and political processes didn’t have effects – some good, some not-so-good. The most significant positive change happened when Luzzatto dropped his original plan that half of the development would be offices, and made it nearly 100% residential, with only a small amount of ground-floor offices and retail that will primarily serve the neighborhood. He also agreed to a good package of relocation benefits.

As for affordable housing, which became the flashpoint at the end, the record is mixed. By June 2012, when the Planning Commission voted to move the project (with reservations) to the council for final review, the project, which then totaled 486 units, included 109 rent-controlled apartments plus another 38 rental units that would be dedicated “affordable.” The project that was approved last week, with 377 units, also had 38 affordable units, but the difference was that in the 2012 project 11 units were affordable to extremely low-income households, while in the new project only three will be affordable to extremely low-income households. The city counts extremely low units as worth two very low units, and so the June 2012 plan delivered more affordability (and much more housing overall).

What happened in the meantime was that last summer, after the Planning Commission approved sending the project to the council, Luzzatto, responding to the outcry against the eviction of existing trailer park residents, voluntarily produced a revised plan under which instead of building all of the affordable units himself, he would donate a parcel of the property fronting Stanford Street that could first be used, indefinitely, to house ten trailers and which afterwards could be developed for affordable housing.

Luzzatto’s compromise proposal turned out to have unfortunate consequences for both him and the project; the council approved the project after the election in November but in December the newly-elected Council famously reversed the approval because in the view of four council members, two of them new, Luzzatto was no longer building enough affordable housing.

As we know, this led to litigation, and negotiations. The plan that the Council approved last week restored affordable units that Luzzatto would build, but left open the fate of the Stanford Street parcel to a future process, after up to ten trailer park residents stay in trailers there for up to ten years. Meanwhile, compared to the June 2012 plan, there will be about 100 fewer units built overall to house the many Santa Monica employees who want to live where they work.

But for Luzzatto’s gesture of trying to save 10 spaces for trailers last summer, one must conclude that the council as it existed in August 2012 would have approved something based on the June 2012 plan and the Planning Commission’s recommendations. On the long-term that would have been better for everyone, since now even the ten trailer park residents who get to stay in the Stanford parcel won’t be there indefinitely.

This is what happens when a planning process turns into a political process, but then no one said planning wasn’t political.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Village Trailer Park: Politics and Planning and Planning Politics

  1. This is old news now, but the same craziness is still going on. We need transit-oriented development and the city says it wants it, but when it gets proposed everyone freaks out. By the time everyone gets a bite at the apple, these projects are all pretty modest. Even the Hines project everyone is complaining about is actually low density for a transit project. How could the city have given Luzzatto so much grief when what he did was replace an old trailer park with apartments we really need. It’s a good thing the city council gave him the go-ahead. He deserved it after so many years of trying every which way to accommodate everything demanded of him.

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