Downtown Development: The Train has Left the Station and is Arriving Soon

I left Monday night’s public meeting about downtown development standards around 9:00 and so I didn’t hear all the comments, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what I heard.

The open mic format provided a chance for people to vent, but that’s okay. No, I don’t believe that the people there who vented were particularly representative of Santa Monicans, but neither were they people who are naturally angry who can be dismissed as Tea Partiers. We’re talking normally calm and friendly folks. These are people who have good lives — they have jobs, or they’re retired, and houses or nice apartments, and they don’t usually have much to complain about.

It struck me how many of them bracketed their passionate complaints about change in Santa Monica with equally passionate declarations about how much they love it here. Many of the most emotional speakers seemed angry about being angry, as if it was infuriating to them to have to get angry in the first place.

Also, when you delve into what they were saying, you find that they’re more discerning than their blanket denunciations of development would have you expect. Since, as I discussed in my previous post, I’m in favor of more development downtown but I haven’t made up my mind about high-rises, I was pleased to hear many of the anti-development speakers say they would be okay with development up to 84 feet high so long as the same rules were applied to everyone.

And of course there were various speakers, such as Mike Feinstein and Phil Brock, who brought up important arguments that need to be made in the community discussion about whether to reverse the 30-year ban against tall towers.

Yet it’s hard to avoid a little cynicism. When I lined up to enter the meeting there was Huntley Hotel lobbyist Sue Burnside checking in those members of the “community” who she had mobilized. Ms. Burnside, who last year bragged online that on the Huntley’s behalf she had organized phony community groups, might want to try a little discretion. It’s the better part of something. (Later when the Huntley’s lawyer from Latham & Watkins spoke I wondered if her firm’s real estate department should charge double to oppose a project to compensate for the cognitive dissonance this must cause. I hope they don’t all need counseling when this is over.)

It was also hard not to be cynical about some of the homegrown commentary. There were the representatives of Santa Monica Coalition For Livable City (SMCLC) charging that city staff was in cahoots with developers to build tall towers in downtown Santa Monica. Back in 2005 SMCLC made the same claims with respect to the towers proposed for Santa Monica Place. SMCLC sued the City to get access to all the city’s emails and correspondence with the developers to show this conspiracy. They even got their legal fees paid. But SMCLC made not one email public. Evidently they found nothing to back up their allegations.

Now it’s the same thing. Staff, consultants, people who are educated and conscientious, and who are like flight attendants who have to keeping smiling no matter what their customers do or say, are nothing but pawns of developers. Staff bashing is repugnant because the staff can’t respond in kind, and unfortunately in Santa Monica they don’t get backed up by the politicians who hire them, or even by senior administrators.

Which brings me to that pounding refrain of “we need to take back our city!,” as if a few harried staff, or their devious consultants, or the venal city council members above them and even their greedy developer overlords, are responsible for bringing ten million people to Los Angeles and making them affluent enough to drive millions of cars.

I also sensed political desperation. The election in November showed that even with substantial funding (from the Huntley) an anti-development candidate cannot win without a SMRR endorsement, yet SMRR has many constituencies besides the anti-development faction, most of which support jobs and housing and other goals that require economic development.

The anti-development faction in Santa Monica politics knows that relatively few people in the city care about what happens downtown (as opposed to their neighborhoods). City Council Member Ted Winterer, a favorite of the anti-development side, recently told The Lookout that his wish list would include reversing the 2001 decision not to build a Target downtown, certainly a signal that he’s not going to let fears about traffic stop him from approving projects that are good for the city. Even Daily Press columnist Bill Bauer, usually a staunch supporter of the anti-development faction, has written in favor of both the Miramar and Gehry hotel/condo towers.

When it comes to development downtown, the anti-development speakers are trying to stop a train that has left the station (and is arriving at Fourth and Colorado in 2016).

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Downtown Development: The Train has Left the Station and is Arriving Soon

  1. Pingback: When Hotels Collide | The Healthy City Local

  2. Thanks, Frank for again bringing us your analysis with the new blog. Anyone who reads your commentary carefully will be in a better position to understand Santa Monica land use politics.

    I attended the meeting and also had mixed feelings about how it went. I do think the slow-growth faction and those alarmed by the thought of new high-rises being written into the Specific Plan as permissable did accomplish something. Mr Payton and the Planning Division staff cannot say that the opportunity site concept was taken to the public and there was no complaint, and decision makers can reference the turn-out and predominantly negative judgments expressed by speakers at the event, if they wish.

    But it did not have the feel of a conversation, or the beginning of a discussion. There are many in the community who have felt that the previous Downtown Specific Plan workshops were manipulative and ventriloquistic. And whether DSP consultant Payton is “devious” or not, etc., he certainly was reluctant to hold a community meeting where heights of the so-called opportunity sites would be under discussion. So the public comment style format with unlimited speaking time was probably wisely chosen, to allow everyone to say whatever they had to say. But the result was an unfocussed sequence of assertions that mostly didn’t really grapple dialogically with the actual issues of height and density. For instance, Mr Koenig made the point that if density is the worry, then high-rise construction on parcels whose overall FAR remains normative shouldn’t be objectionable, and actually can have advantages for the pedestrian experience in variety of skyline and alleviation of sense of bulk that otherwise comes with density. But it wasn’t taken up, or contradicted, or acknowledged; though this is not the first time he’s made it at public events.

    I want, however, to correct the impression you appear to want to create that those people who are allied with the Huntley Hotel and have taken advantage of Sue Burnside’s professional organizational services are not community members. I personally have been at many meetings at the Huntely and observed or participated in many City public hearings where persons who frequent those meetings have spoken, and all of us are genuine, bona fide concerned citizens who are grateful for the assistance and support of the Huntley. It is a completely legitimate alliance. We, and they, care about the quality and shape of the built environment of the city and share a common interest in protecting our neighborhood from a change that we judge would be harmful.

    The folks at the Miramar have a professional public outreach organization and elite land-use lawyers cum lobbyists working for them, after all. Nice that those in the community who wish to oppose them should have comparable resources.

    Which is not to say that all of us always agree with the Huntly’s direction, or follow it. But their participation in the politics of the city and cultivation of community members (and leaders) with whom they are aligned is normal and wholesome.

    • David — thanks for the nice words and your points are well-stated. I guess it ultimately comes down to one’s own substantive analysis and analysis of motive. I know who and what the consultants and lawyers for the developers are working for, but I don’t believe the Huntley is working for the good of the “community.” But you’re right, you are entitled to take whatever help you can get.

  3. Yes, thank you for your comment on staff bashing. It has become a favorite pastime in Santa Monica at all levels and is a terrible abuse of power. I was an employee of Los Angeles and Pasadena for years and was fortunate never to have experienced this level of disrespect.

  4. I think that both the Miramar and Gehry projects would be great additions. Thanks for reminding us of the substantial role that the Huntley is playing.

    In regard to staff bashing, it is quite virulent. I wonder whether other city leaders defend their staffs.

    I am looking forward to your taking a stand on the high rises.

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