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.

1 thought on “Paper Mate: Small differences, big differences

  1. Pingback: It was 20 some years ago today | The Healthy City Local

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