A Quiver Full of Arrows to Close SMO

In the long term, Judge John Walter’s decision last week to dismiss the City’s case against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s not only that the judge emphasized that his decision had nothing to do with the merits of the case, but Santa Monica has several means to gain control of the airport land and ultimately close the airport.

The lawsuit that Judge Walter dismissed primarily on the basis of the technical requirements of the federal Quiet Title Act (QTA) was based on the City’s claim that the “perpetuity clause” in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer (IOT) is not enforceable and that control of the airport will return to the City when the 1984 Settlement Agreement with the FAA expires July 1, 2015.

By suing under the QTA, the City was trying to determine ahead of time what its rights were — to be able to plan accordingly for the future of the land. Judge Walter said he sympathized with that wish, but said the claim was not being made consistent with the time period allowed in the QTA for bringing suit against the federal government. His decision had nothing to do with the merits of the City’s case; since the City has not yet tried to close the airport, he said the issue was not yet “ripe.” The issue will be subject to litigation when the City moves to close the airport.

But litigation over the 1948 and 1984 agreements is not the only arrow in the City’s quiver. In its complaint, the City, in recounting the history of how it acquired the airport land, took pains to point out that the 1948 IOT only applies to one piece of the airport. A large piece, on which sits about 40% of the airport’s runway, is not subject to the perpetuity clause in the IOT.

Neighborhood groups opposed to the airport have made the argument, which City Attorney Marsha Moutrie has said appears to her to have merit, that the City could, on July 1, 2015, take back that portion of the airport, which would reduce the runway to less than 3000 feet. Obviously it would be simpler for the city to prevail in a suit over the 1948 and 1984 agreements, but reducing the length of the runway would mean that the big private jets that have the worst adverse impacts would not be able to use the airport. Even more significantly this would likely mean that the airport would not be able to subsist economically and would have to close.

In this connection, it’s not only the 1984 Settlement Agreement that expires July 1, 2015, but also all the leases of city-owned land and buildings at the airport to aviation interests. These are the hangars that the private jets and planes use, the support facilities for fuel and repairs, and the offices of the aviation companies. Under these old leases the rents are pennies on the dollar of what is now market-rate. Indeed, aviation companies are currently subleasing much of this space at a considerable profit to non-aviation tenants, such as Volkswagen’s design studio.

All of these leases end in 2015. Then the City can terminate the leases and lease to new, non-aviation tenants. As David Goddard, Chair of the Airport Commission, discussed at the Airport2Park panel a few weeks ago on financing a big park at the airport, this would represent a large swing, of millions of dollars, of revenue to the City — in the long term, these dollars could go to the operating costs of a park, in the short term there would be plenty of money to fund litigation with the FAA.

If the FAA could persuade a court that the perpetuity clause still applies, and if the airport could survive a starvation strategy, there would still be politics at a higher level. Congresswoman Karen Bass, who represents the district immediately to the east of the airport, has called for the airport to close. Henry Waxman was inching to that position when he announced his retirement, but there is every indication that his successor will support efforts to close the airport.

Candidates Ted Lieu and Marianne Williamson have both stated they support Santa Monica’s right to close the airport. Wendy Greuel, to my knowledge, has not yet declared a position on the airport, but there’s every reason that the next U.S. representative from our district will call for closing the airport. One has to wonder how much of its resources and political capital the FAA will want to expend defending a small airport that has lost the support of the local members of Congress.

Regardless whether the City chooses to appeal Judge Walter’s decision, it’s clear that the fight to close Santa Monica Airport is far from over.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica Airport

Santa Monica Airport

MANGo: Can we agree to agree?

I concluded last week’s post on the Hines Paper Mate project with a reference to Freud’s phrase, “the narcissism of small differences.” It’s a good phrase.

It seems more and more true that a notable difference between national and local politics is that on the national level, where the parties used to battle for the center so much that critics said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them, differences have become wider and wider, while with local politics people find ever more narrow grounds over which to argue.

Is there any better local example of this than the controversy over the Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway project, known by its nickname of “MANGo”, which City Council will consider tomorrow night?” When this project began, about a year ago, there were fundamental disagreements among residents, some of whom were encouraging the project and others of whom feared it. However, a plan evolved through a productive public process, and it seems that nearly everyone likes 99% of it. But that doesn’t stop folks from furiously disagreeing over the last 1%. (And I’m not sure they disagree even that much.)

I’ve attended most of the community workshops on the project, including the first, which took place in March of last year. The March workshop began with a discussion of the project’s goals. Participants then toured the project area, either on foot or on bikes, to gather impressions of the area and consider what investments in the public realm could make it better.

Drivers use Michigan Avenue and connecting streets, which run through the middle of much of the Pico Neighborhood, to avoid east-west boulevards. The goal of the project is to slow down and reduce this cut-through traffic and turn the streets into linear public spaces that encourage walking, cycling and neighborliness.

At the March workshop some locals were suspicious that MANGo was a gentrification scheme that would disrupt their way of living in their neighborhood. This attitude in the Pico Neighborhood is understandable; as in many working class neighborhoods that arose around industrial corridors (Michigan Avenue was literally “across the tracks” when Santa Monica developed), in Pico, skepticism about governmental action is warranted. It’s not every neighborhood that had the privilege of being ripped apart by a freeway. You can understand why some residents just want to be let alone.

At the same time, neighborhoods like Pico don’t typically get a fair share of public investment, and people who live there know it. The calming and greening of streets has taken place all over Santa Monica in other “advantaged” neighborhoods that have demanded it. I live in Ocean Park, and it was two decades ago that Fourth Street and Ocean Park Boulevards, which were both four-lane roads (they had been widened in the ’50s as part of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project), were reduced to one lane in each direction. Ocean Park Boulevard recently was “greened.” There has been extensive traffic calming in Sunset Park and also on Santa Monica’s north side.

Santa Monicans have complained for years about traffic flowing through their neighborhoods, and the City has responded to those complaints.

As the MANGo process continued through the year ideas were floated and evaluated. Some proved popular and some were tossed out, and along the way a remarkable consensus emerged. One workshop in particular needs to be mentioned – the “Pop-Up MANGo” that took place September 21. This extended block party featured temporary installations of the kind of features that could be used in the plan. Four hundred people walked or biked through the installations.

Photos from the Pop-Up MANGo, Sept. 21, 2013

Photos from the Pop-Up MANGo, Sept. 21, 2013

I say the consensus was remarkable because it’s not easy to get agreement on traffic circles and bulb-outs, etc. It’s not any easier when people are suspicious from the start. Nonetheless, here we are — I’ve listened to people on both sides of the current argument (namely, bike people on one side and representatives of the Pico Neighborhood Association on the other), and I’ve read their materials, and they all say they agree on all of the plan . . . all of it except one facet that isn’t even part of the plan that the City Council is being asked to approve.

MANGo pop-up 130921-786The element that is not part of the plan, but is controversial, is the idea of placing a traffic diverter at the corner of 11th and Michigan that would prevent cars from turning onto Michigan to get to Lincoln. This diverter emerged from the process as a potential tool that could be used if the other MANGo measures did not reduce traffic levels on Michigan to levels that are consistent with a neighborhood street.

I can’t understand why there is such a disagreement. (And I have to say, I know and admire people on both sides of the dispute.) The bicycle folks are not advocating the installation of a diverter. According to a letter to the City Council from the bike group Santa Monica Spoke, the cyclists do not support the “aggressive” implementation of a diverter and the group acknowledges that diverters might never be needed. I’ve talked to the Spoke people, and they know that diverters, which disrupt the flow of the street grid, should only be used as a last resort.

I’ve also heard representatives from the Pico Neighborhood, who support the MANGo plan overall, say that in the future they could conceivably agree that a diverter would be a good idea – but they first want to see what happens with implementation of less drastic measures, and they want to see if changes to the pattern for dropping off students at Samohi make a difference. Sounds reasonable and doesn’t sound much different from what Spoke is saying.

Santa Monica Spoke does have technical disagreement with staff, however, about how many car trips are consistent with a neighborhood street. Staff says that the diverter should be looked into if the currently proposed measures don’t bring daily traffic counts down to 2,000, while Spoke says the number should be 1,500. Staff and Spoke each have their technical sources.

I support the Spoke number, not because any number should be an automatic trigger for implementing a diverter, but because 1,500 car trips is a better goal. Staff and City Council should make it clear that a diverter cannot be added without a public process (i.e., not automatically by staff); assuming they do that, I don’t see how a more stringent standard would hurt anyone.

Thanks for reading.

Paper Mate: Small differences, big differences

Because of a family obligation Tuesday evening I didn’t watch the City Council’s deliberations on the Hines Paper Mate project until last night, and I tried to wait before forming any opinions until I watched the hearing, because I knew there would be subtleties. (I suggest watching the video from at least the 1:50 mark; the press coverage of the hearing has also been good, with the most detailed analysis coming from Lindsay Miller in Santa Monica Next. I also recommend Jason Islas’ article in The Lookout in which he collects the reactions of several former mayors – they disagree, but they all have important things to say.)

What I learned from watching the meeting was that the council was even more closely divided than the 4-3 vote indicates, and that the obstacle to a broader agreement that would have garnered five or even six votes turned out to be fear of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). To see how close the councilmembers were to reaching a compromise, one needs to follow the motions the councilmembers made.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown made the first motion, which was to return the project to staff to study turning the entire project into residential, with only ground-floor retail as commercial development. This was the proposal that former mayor Denny Zane and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights have been suggesting.

While McKeown’s motion was dead on arrival for various reasons, it’s significant that he did not call categorically for a reduction in the size of the project. He did say that he wanted to see a project that would generate no net new car trips, but he pointed out that office development, on a square footage basis, produces three times the traffic of housing; it is conceivable that an all residential/ground-floor retail project at the 765,000 square feet proposed in the plan would not generate more traffic than what would be generated if the existing factory were turned into offices.

So, McKeown recognized that considerable development was appropriate for the site, and he wasn’t necessarily calling for a down-sizing. Nonetheless, the motion was never going to get four votes, and for at least a couple of reasons.

The first was that at least four council members believe that the project is better with some office development and, as Councilmember Gleam Davis pointed out, no one during the updates of the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), including, by implication, McKeown, had called for development in Bergamot to be 100% residential.

The second reason McKeown’s motion was DOA turned out to be the crucial factor in the whole debate, namely that changing the plan in any significant way would cause so much delay that a majority of councilmembers believed that the whole project would be in jeopardy. They feared that Hines would throw in the towel and reoccupy the factory site, thus stymieing the redevelopment of the area pursuant to the LUCE and the recently passed Bergamot Area Plan.

To a significant extent this problem was a result of the failure, as identified by former mayor Michael Feinstein in the aforementioned Lookout article, of the City to have had a more residential project evaluated under CEQA and negotiated with the developer. But beyond that, something was missing at Tuesday night’s meeting that would have been necessary to alter the project: any negotiation with the developer. If you have watched City Council deliberations on development agreements before, you know that there are typically several moments when the developer’s attorney asks for time to consult with his client, and then informs the council what changes in the agreement his client would agree to.

I wasn’t in the room, but from the video none of that seemed to happen Tuesday night, which makes me think that the councilmembers who were concerned about delay had grounds to believe that there was not going to be much more negotiating. But neither could they assure Hines that what they decided on Tuesday night would be approved later.

This problem about certainty became even more apparent with a motion from Councilmember Ted Winterer. Winterer proposed changes to the project that I and many others would have liked to see: he proposed restricting office development to one building, essentially replicating the square footage that now exists in the factory, and converting the second proposed office building into housing. This would have made all added square footage, and 70% of the whole project, residential.

It appeared that Winterer’s motion could have garnered four or even five or six votes, but it was staff’s view that it would take months for environmental review for this new configuration, and there was no way for the council to approve the plan before then, meaning that council couldn’t close a deal. The motion lost 5-2. (McKeown voted against it because he thought the project would still have too much office.)

Winterer’s motion was particularly significant because when he and Councilmember Tony Vasquez, who both ultimately voted no on the project, voted yes on the motion, they voted yes on a project with the full 765,000 square feet. The was reminiscent of what happened at the Planning Commission, where Richard McKinnon, Susan Himmelrich, and Jennifer Kennedy, commissioners who all ultimately voted no on the project, all voted in favor of a similar, “full-sized but more residential” proposal that McKinnon made.

With all the charges flying around about developer campaign contributions corrupting the four council members who voted yes, the fact is that because of the many virtues of this project as a whole, virtues that are well known to the council members and the planning commissioners, two councilmembers and three planning commissioners whom the anti-development side supports voted for a project that is only marginally different from the project that passed. (In fact, the project that passed has increased levels of affordable housing because of amendments Councilmember Gleam Davis proposed.)

When Winterer’s motion failed, it was Davis who made a last-ditch motion to try to garner more than a four-vote majority. Her proposal did what neither McKeown’s nor Winterer’s did: she moved explicitly for a reduction in size, by removing about 42,000 square feet of office development and not replacing it with housing. She did this in hopes of picking up one or two more votes, but neither Winterer nor Vazquez supported her.

Well, maybe they would have if that motion had come to a vote, but it all became moot because staff, even though the environmental review would take less time since the project was only being reduced in size, could not find a means for the council to approve the project with the reduction before all the documents and plans were changed to reflect it. A majority of councilmembers were concerned that without any certainty of approval Hines would reoccupy the factory and there would be no deal.

What we saw Tuesday night was a failure of CEQA and the triumph of form over substance. The purpose of CEQA is to give decision-makers data relating to the environmental impacts of their decisions, and, sure enough, the councilmembers were well aware from environmental review of the relative impacts of office and residential development. They had plenty of knowledge on which to base a decision to increase the amount of housing.

In the view, however, of the City Attorney and planning staff, CEQA would not have been satisfied, or, and this was important, at least not satisfied enough in the face of expected litigation. In effect, it’s not sufficient for the councilmembers to base their decision on what they know from environmental review if what they learned didn’t originate precisely within the scope of the environmental review. CEQA, instead of protecting the environment, became an impediment to the council’s adopting an alternative that would have had less impact than the plan the council approved.

In the end, a bare majority of four councilmembers approved the project, as modified in certain respects, including to increase affordability.

At the heart of this approval was the LUCE, and it was clear that the four councilmembers of the majority believe in what the council did when it unanimously adopted the LUCE in 2010, calling for development of considerable office space in Santa Monica’s former industrial areas. They believe that more offices near the light rail will help with traffic in the long run. I suspect they also believe that Hines played by the rules, developing a project in accordance with the LUCE ratios, and that it wouldn’t be fair to change those rules now.

Mayor Pam O’Connor also made the point that 82% of Santa Monica residents who work, work outside the city, and that we can also reduce traffic by locating jobs nearer to them. True, but we all know the traffic pattern that is the worst is the inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon. Perhaps the most reassuring comment for those of us who believe we need more housing in the area instead of offices came from Councilmember Terry O’Day, who pointed out that none of the 33 currently pending development agreements propose any offices.

While by Santa Monica standards the Paper Mate project is a big development it will add only about 150,000 square feet of office development on top of the square footage of the existing factory, while building almost 500 units of housing. There are millions of square feet of office in the area and more elsewhere on the Westside, and 150,000 square feet aren’t going to make a big difference. In square footage terms, 70% of the net new development is residential.

Still, the battle lines are being drawn, there is talk of a referendum and everyone expects a nasty election in November fought over development issues. Freud has that expression I like so much, “the narcissism of small differences.” When I consider how small the difference was between the proposal Winterer and Vazquez voted for and the plan that passed, and when I reflect on the fact that McKeown at least contemplated a 765,000 square foot project with his motion, I start to think of Freud.

Thanks for reading.

Money and politics: when it’s okay and when it’s not for the twain to meet

Tomorrow night City Council will deliberate Hines’ plan to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site and the development agreement that would allow it to happen. In December, after the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote to approve the project (with significant conditions) I wrote a blog about what I thought should happen, namely a final negotiation at the council level to reduce the amount of offices and increase the amount of housing. Since then nothing I’ve heard or read has changed my views (although I acknowledge that there are many levels of detail I haven’t addressed, but then that’s what’s great about being a blogger).

In the meantime another issue has arisen: the demands of some, made several times during last week’s public hearing, that Mayor Pam O’Connor recuse herself from the Paper Mate vote because seven years ago she accepted campaign contributions from Hines executives to help retire the debt leftover from her 2006 reelection campaign.

Contributing to the passions aroused by the contributions is that everyone predicts that O’Connor will vote in favor of the project in some form or another; if she recused herself, that, in effect, would be a “no” vote. Opponents of the project would like this; they also want to embarrass O’Connor, as they consider her too friendly to development. Supporters of the project and the kind of transit-oriented development it reflects, feel the opposite and have come to O’Connor’s defense.

The prediction that O’Connor will support the project is based on evidence both general and specific.

The general evidence comes from O’Connor’s consistent record over 20 years, not only on the council but also in regional positions such as the boards of Metro and as service as President of the Southern California Association of Governments, of supporting urban in-fill development projects, particularly those, like the Paper Mate project, that are near transit and promote walkability.

More specific evidence that O’Connor is likely to support the project comes from votes and public comments directly relating to Paper Mate. These came not only when, in 2011, the project had its float-up hearings at the council (when Hines dropped from its proposal about 200,000 square feet of office development), but also in connection with the years of planning and votes that went into the updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan (the LUCE), which the council approved in 2010, and more recently into the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP), which the council passed last fall.

Both the LUCE and the BAP were developed with the Paper Mate site in mind: the 310,000 square-foot property, sitting directly across Olympic Boulevard from the future Bergamot Expo station, is the crucial site for connecting the old industrial properties north of Olympic to the station. More generally, the fundamental bargain in the LUCE was to channel future development away from existing neighborhoods and into Santa Monica’s former industrial zones. O’Connor voted in favor of both the LUCE and the BAP—not surprising, since they represent the urban principles she has supported.

Also not surprisingly, the Hines plans for Paper Mate more or less follow the LUCE and the BAP.

The Paper Mate plant back in the day. (Photo credit: Santa Monica Public Library Image Archive_

The Paper Mate plant back in the day. (Photo credit: Santa Monica Public Library Image Archive)

So what does this have to do with the contributions from Hines executives to pay off O’Connor’s 2006 campaign debts? There’s a fine line in American politics—the whole system depends on candidates being able to raise money to run campaigns (otherwise only rich people could run for office) and naturally candidates will collect more money from contributors who believe that the candidate, once in office, will make decisions that benefit the contributor (either indirectly or directly). Think about it—on a national basis, businesses give money to Republicans, and unions give money to Democrats, and both sides believe that the other side’s contributors consequently have undue influence.

So where’s the fine line? Well, it’s okay for a candidate to collect money from contributors who agree with the candidate in general and expect good things from the candidate’s election, but it’s not okay to collect contributions in return for the promise of a specific benefit.

The question is, then, what’s more likely: did the Hines executives make their contributions to O’Connor’s campaign in return for a promise to vote for their Paper Mate proposal (which, although talked about previously, wasn’t submitted to the planning department until May 2010), or because they believed that O’Connor already held principles about how to develop the industrial areas of Santa Monica that would allow for redevelopment of the site?

It’s worth keeping mind that Hines in 2006 was not a newcomer to Santa Monica—it had already developed its Lantana entertainment office complex on Olympic Boulevard, which had had its development agreement approved just a few years before.

I suspect you can tell where my own answer is heading—it’s unlikely to me that the Hines executives made their contributions for a quid pro quo on the specific Paper Mate project, but highly likely that they did so knowing that O’Connor believed in policies for redevelopment that meant she wouldn’t want to see the old factory stay there.

In any case, since the council voted 7-0 in favor of the LUCE, which itself emerged from a long public process (and was quite popular when it passed), and 6-1 in favor of the BAP, is it plausible to tie O’Connor’s support for the redevelopment of the Paper Mate site along the lines proposed in the LUCE the BAP to undue influence from the developer? She didn’t vote any different from the other council members who supported the plans.

Aye, and there’s the rub, because, to inject a bit of substance into this post about politics, the LUCE and the BAP are flawed in that they call for too much office development in the area. The City’s planners and consultants believed in good faith that adding more offices near the Bergamot Expo station would both increase transit ridership and aid the city’s economy, and the council members took their advice, but given the morning inbound and afternoon outbound traffic problems, it was predictable that adding any more commuter traffic would fail any traffic analysis.

I don’t know if it would require an amendment to the LUCE, but the final negotiations, from the dais tomorrow night if need be, should be to reduce the amount of office development in the project to no more than the existing square footage of the Paper Mate factory, and increase housing, which does not add to the morning and afternoon gridlock.

Thanks for reading.