I was busy (i.e., sleeping) in the wee hours Wednesday morning, and it wasn’t until the weekend that I got around to watching the City Council’s deliberations over the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP). It surprised many residents who spoke at the meeting, but the main issue for the council members was not traffic, density, or parks, but rather how to increase the affordability of housing.
This gulf between what some residents believe are the issues and what in fact were the issues arises because the council members, even those elected with the support of, for instance, residents who rank traffic congestion as Santa Monica’s worst problem, are aware that they have to deal with the inevitable more than they have to deal with the wishful.
It is inevitable that the old industrial areas of Santa Monica will be redeveloped, and it is inevitable that the number of Santa Monicans who live in apartments and condos, already a massive majority, will continue to increase. Santa Monica is both a post-sprawl and a post-industrial city, and people charged with managing that transition, that evolution, cannot wish away the inevitable.
And so the council members did not discuss traffic much, because they know that the BAP deals with traffic as best as any realistic plan for the area could, and they didn’t discuss density much, because they know that the densities to be allowed under the plan, even if you don’t count new streets in the FAR calculation, are moderate and realistic for a place that a metropolis surrounds and which in turn surrounds a train station on a billion-dollar light rail line. It was telling that there was no controversy among the council members about increasing the density for the two privately own parcels on Michigan Avenue adjacent to the Bergamot galleries.
Nor did the council members argue much about parks, since they know that given the legal and fiscal constraints, they couldn’t do any more Wednesday morning to create parks than the plan did, and that the real work of creating usable public open space will come in the negotiation of development agreements.
So what did the council members argue about, or given that they didn’t really argue, what did they spend a couple of hours discussing? Well, it was housing, specifically how to get more housing that would be available to people who work in the area. The discussion revolved around three motions.
Council Member Gleam Davis made the first motion, and it reflected the consensus of a lot of progressives in the city, including the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, that the plan needed more affordability. Davis’ motion was to expand density bonuses for building affordable housing, and to target the bonuses reward developers who build units for households earning less than what staff had recommended.
This motion passed unanimously.
The next motion came from Council Member Ted Winterer, and it had to do with the ratio between commercial and residential development in the area under the plan. If you were reading my Lookout columns three years ago about the updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan (the LUCE) (and you’re obsessed enough with local politics to remember them), you will know my heart went all fluttery when Winterer made the motion, because he wanted to clarify that the ratios called for in the plan would include in the calculation of the ratio existing square footage (which is all commercial), and existing square footage that is removed in the building of new development, thereby increasing the percentage of residential development because the percentage would be based upon the whole amount of development, not only the new development.
Winterer’s motion passed on a 4-3 vote; voting for it were Winterer, Davis and Council Members Tony Vazquez and Kevin McKeown. Council Member Terry O’Day said that he was voting against it because he believed that it would put the BAP in conflict with the LUCE, and presumably Mayor Pam O’Connor and Council Member Robert Holbrook agreed with him because they didn’t say anything and also voted no.
Council Member McKeown made the third motion, and it was to increase by 50% the amount of affordable housing that would be required under the plan in large projects. This motion lost on a 4-3 vote; Davis, who was the key vote all night, voted no because she was concerned that an across-the-board increase in the requirement might reduce the overall amount of housing that would be built, defeating the purpose of, as McKeown had emphasized, getting housing built near the jobs in the area to house working families and reduce commuter traffic.
Instead, Davis and the rest of the council directed staff to analyze the economics of increasing the affordable housing requirement; this data can then be used in negotiations over development agreements, which is where the data, on a project-by-project basis, would be most relevant.
In the end, the council members voted 6-1 to pass the BAP. The no vote came from McKeown; he made a protest vote on the affordability issue, but otherwise did not express significant disagreements with the plan. It was significant that O’Day, Holbrook and O’Connor voted for the plan even though they had lost the vote on the commercial/residential ratio, and that Vazquez and Winterer voted in favor of the plan even though they had lost the vote on McKeown’s motion to increase affordability.
It’s worth remembering that the Planning Commission approved the plan on a 5-1 vote, and the one no vote then was also a kind of protest vote, that time on the parks issue.
Some Santa Monicans are mystified about how the commissioners and the council members could so overwhelmingly endorse a plan that plan opponents say the public overwhelmingly rejects. Leaving aside the question whether the general public is in fact upset about the plan, the fact remains that the job of the commissioners and the council members is to plan for the future not sanctify the past.
Thanks for reading.