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.
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.