Who’s a Victim?

Development has been a big political issue in Santa Monica since the first SMRR-majority city council “confronted the Growth Machine” 30 years ago, but for a long time social issues, including rent control and the affordability of housing, and the multi-dimensional issues surrounding homelessness, were just as big.

Rent control and homelessness were hot button issues, but there are other issues, too, that were and are just as important as development. Poverty persists in Santa Monica, and a substantial number of residents, and even more of the workers here, classify as working poor. A decade ago the living wage was a huge issue in Santa Monica, and a real right to organize is still being fought for.

Then there’s what might be Santa Monica’s biggest problem — its persistent plague of gang violence. But 20 years ago not only gangs, but crime in general, and the perception of chaos (related to homelessness), were big political issues. (How many readers remember Ruth Ebner?

Education issues have also been big, including special education. Ten years ago Community for Excellent Public Schools led a virtual uprising to get more funding for the schools from the city.

You don’t, however, hear so much about these issues today, certainly when compared to all the talk about development. Yet, perhaps with the exception of the crime rate, which has declined substantially, no one can say that these issues are resolved. After years of debate, however, consensuses have emerged about how to deal with these issues (at least most of the time), and that’s why we don’t hear so much about them.

Why is it that development persists as the big, controversial issue? It can’t be because there has been “over-development” in Santa Monica, because, as I’ve written previously, there hasn’t been much development approved since The Water Garden 25 years ago.

Nor, rationally, could it be a matter of impacts on the city from development. When it comes to impacts, the marginal amount of development being argued about, compared to how much development there already is in Santa Monica and its surroundings, will have, even on a cumulative basis, impacts that are trivial at most.

There is a practical consensus to regulate development stringently, but unlike with the other issues, there’s never been a political consensus.

Why? Let’s face it — those who believe they are the victims of development are articulate and vocal, as compared, say, to the families who live in fear of gang violence, or the workers who can’t live here because of the lack of affordable housing.

The rhetoric of victimhood feeds on itself. Take this quote from a recent “Our Town” column in the Santa Monica Daily Press, where the column’s author (Ellen Brennan) defines for her readers the word “stakeholder” as the City’s planners use it to identify those who are consulted on development decisions:

“In Santa Monica real politick, stakeholders are developers and their allies, the Chamber of Commerce land use committee, and certain political cliques who exert undue influence behind the scenes.”

What’s missing here is any acknowledgement that the anti-development movement is the most powerful force in Santa Monica politics. I can understand the political strategy never to admit victory, so as never to let up, but when you consider that there has been hardly any new commercial development in Santa Monica approved for 25 years, at some point you would think that the people who accomplished that would celebrate.

(Yes, there has been a significant but modest uptick in the amount of residential development in Santa Monica (from about zero 20 years ago), mostly downtown, but housing development has not been controversial. The sensible center of the anti-development movement (and yes, there is a sensible center, and it has included nearly all the city councilmembers elected with anti-development support) has never opposed housing. For instance, the RIFT initiative in 2008, which sought to bring ballot box planning to Santa Monica, did not apply to residential development.)

Consider some of the victories the anti-development folks have had. I wrote a few weeks ago about how 450,000 square feet of development was removed from the voter-approved Civic Center plan after the city bought 11 acres from RAND. Then in 2001, there was the battle over the Target store proposed for downtown. The anti-development faction certainly won that battle: only two councilmembers, Pam O’Connor and the late Ken Genser, voted for it.

(Funny thing about Target, but these days it seems like nearly everyone wishes the council had approved it. Now that the department stores downtown are Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, there’s not much middle-class shopping in Santa Monica, and people don’t like to drive Lincoln Boulevard to Costco. Appreciation of convenience trumps fear of traffic. But this phenomenon of changing one’s views about development happens. Recently I have heard from people who say they opposed the building of the NMS apartments at Lincoln and Broadway (the complex with the Quonset hut), but now that the apartments have been built, with the little plaza and coffee shop at the corner, they like it. But changing one’s mind about a prior development controversy rarely changes one’s views about the next.)

And let’s not forget, the LUCE was an anti-development victory. When it passed, on a 7-0 vote at the Council, the anti-development faction was pleased overall. And why not? The LUCE protected 96 percent of the city from increased development and mandated heavy costs, and discretionary review, for any significant development in the other 4 percent. Now that there are plans to build some of what little can be built under the LUCE, the same people now say they were betrayed by it.

Yes, let’s have robust discussions about how much development should take place in Santa Monica. But it might improve the dialogue if the winners would stop claiming to be victims.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Who’s a Victim?

  1. It only takes a quick look at the map of “development agreement” projects to see that the runaway development lobbyists have currently got the upper hand over neighborhood groups that oppose highrise condominiums across town. There are thirty or forty DA projects pending, some larger than others, but all exceeding the normal height and density limits. Our current city council hasn’t rejected any projects and isn’t likely to. In fact, one of the worse offenders in runaway development is the city itself.

  2. Frank, I really liked this column. It puts much in perspective. People now are concerned withwhat some of us where concerned about years ago — adding/preserving green space — even while pushing for Target. The only omission you made was a current concern about all the same-looking box-shaped mixed use buildings that are within code but plentiful and somewhat ugly. Alas, you can’t legislate taste and design within the code limits. That moves the focus to wanting more say in what gets a green light in development agreements.

    • Maryanne – thanks. Yes, design review is difficult. My view has always been that it’s futile to focus on style, and meddling often makes things worse (an argument against want more say), but we could have objective standards about the quality of materials. That plus pluralism — i.e., lots of decisions rather than few of them — is, I’d say, the way to go. And street trees — as Frank Lloyd Wright said, the doctor can bury his mistakes, but all an architect can do is plant vines. 🙂 F.

    • Our city streets are a great land bank that can be converted to green space. Take, for example, 19th Street and Euclid Street, between Wilshire and Colorado. Both streets are broad and lined with palm trees, which cast almost no shade. These 50+ foot streets can spare at least 20 feet on the east sides for community gardens.

  3. State general plan law requires open space and recreational planning along with other specific plans- SM can’t add more density without proportional parks and green space. Period. There are great and fabulous opportunities for legal development. We also need to qualify all the illegal development before creating more problems than necessary.

    One of the victims is Stewart Park. Stewart park was built over the trash dump as a temporary solution many years ago in order to comply with State Statutes to further development in Santa Monica. It was always known that this solution would never be permanent unless millions of dollars went into it to properly rectify its issues. Since then, I think Tonga park is the only additional park added, yet our population as grown very substantially as a percentage and masses and masses of commercial and residential buildings have been built. I think that the city has proposed a new fee for developers to build units. But, that fee is against the law. The state requires that land be actually codified into the general and specific plans in the city. Frank, I think you wrote a nice article. But lets face it, It is written in such a way as to defend an illegal development pattern.

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