Desperate Times, Desperate Measures, Desperate Companies that Rent Corporate Jets

I’ve already been quoted by Jason Islas in The Lookout calling the initiative that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has filed to prevent the Santa Monica City Council from closing Santa Monica Airport a desperation move, but there is more to it than that.

The filing of the initiative to amend the City Charter to preserve the airport also shows that notwithstanding all the bravado coming from AOPA and the aviation industry it represents, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about the City’s purported obligation to operate the airport in perpetuity, they are all scared. Why? They know that the deal they made with the City in 1984 to settle that generation’s litigation over the airport was that the City could close it in 2015, that the 31 more years of flying they got then were the last they’d get, and they know that once the City gets them in court, the City’s rights over the land will be confirmed.

Even more than that, they know that when the City Council takes the actions — by the end of this year — that the council directed staff to analyze and put into policy form, that the path to closing the airport, or at least reducing its operations substantially, will be irreversible.

They also know that once the City embarks on developing the “concept plan based on low intensity use” that Council Member Kevin McKeown added to the actions the council adopted Tuesday night, they will lose their argument that the City will replace the airport with commercial or otherwise intensive development.

So AOPA had to act now. Loaded with money from the aviation industry, AOPA will try to persuade voters that all it’s doing is making sure the voters have ultimate authority over the decisions the City Council makes, but voters already have that authority – through the referendum process. As the recent signature-gathering for the referendum on the Hines development shows, if 10% of Santa Monica voters don’t like what the City Council decides to do with the airport, the council’s actions will go to a vote.

From the language in the proposed initiative, it’s clear that AOPA wants not only to pass an initiative requiring votes on airport decisions, but also to pass one that is vague and broad enough that any action the City would take in managing its property at the airport – an adjustment to a lease, for instance – would be subject to a lawsuit from aviation interests on the basis that the action, however ministerial, would need to be voted on.

AOPA, if it spends enough money, can obtain enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. Sure. But I for one am confident that the voters of Santa Monica will see through their plan and vote no.

In the meantime, however, it’s worth looking at some of the arguments airport proponents made at the City Council hearing Tuesday night.

Perhaps the most obnoxious argument airport defenders make is the one that homeowners near the airport bought into the area with knowledge of the airport, and that that disqualifies them from being concerned about their health and safety. But of course those residents don’t really care about their health and safety – they’re only fighting the airport for the big bucks they are going to make when they can sell their homes once the airport is gone.

Do they know how insulting this is?

Aside from ignoring the many people who want to close the airport who don’t fall into this category, this argument ignores important facts. One is that many homeowners bought their properties when jets were banned at the airport. Jets magnify the airport’s impacts, and the number of jet operations and the size of the aircraft have increased greatly over the years, so that the situation has become much worse for all residents, regardless when they moved in.

But truly the argument should be reversed – since 1984 it is the pilots and the aviation businesses who have known that the City would likely close the airport in 2015 and would certainly have the right to do so. It is they who should have been making plans for the future. These businesses lease their facilities from the City – businesses in the real world lose their leases all the time. (I still miss Broadway Deli!) What are these proud business people complaining about? They way they go on about the government’s obligation to keep their businesses going, you’d think they were socialists!

Another argument the pro-airport people make is that in the event of an emergency Santa Monica Airport will be the area’s lifeline. Okay, I don’t want to jinx things, but we had an earthquake in 1994 that was big enough to knock down the Santa Monica Freeway, and I don’t recall anyone re-staging the Berlin Airlift. The same goes for emergency flights. There is no reason that a park at the airport can’t have open ground sufficient to land emergency helicopters.

There’s no question that the most appealing uses of the airport are the Angel’s Flight medical flights. But given that there are other airports nearby, and given the benefits of the great park that replace the airport, are they sufficient reason to keep the airport open?

As for building a great park on the airport land, the airport proponents keep saying that the City wouldn’t have the money to build it. Where they get this, I don’t know. In the past 20 years the voters of Santa Monica have approved more than a billion dollars in school and college bonds. They have an unbelievable public spirit and they love their city. I have no doubt that they would approve a parks bond to cover construction costs that cannot be financed otherwise.

Lastly, the Daily Press ran a story by David Mark Simpson about concern among non-aviation businesses at the airport over extending their leases, focusing on Typhoon Restaurant. A representative from Typhoon also spoke at the hearing Tuesday night, asking for flexibility in leasing guidelines to justify his client investing in improvements in the now 20-year-old restaurant. I hope that staff can incorporate that kind of flexibility into its leasing guidelines, but more than that, I am sure that Typhoon will sell even more of its delicious whole catfish to even more customers once the restaurant’s big windows look out over a great park full of happy people rather than a runway with screaming jets.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica Airport

Santa Monica Airport

Turning Santa Monica Airport into a local land use matter

It’s rare when the Santa Monica City Council dedicates an entire meeting to one topic, but the council is doing that Tuesday night, when the sole item on the agenda (beyond the consent calendar) will be the future of Santa Monica Airport.

And why not? Fifty years from now, the council members will be remembered, if at all, for what they do with the airport (or forgotten for what they don’t do).

As someone involved in the movement to close the airport and turn it into a great city park, I frequently have friends telling me that what we at are doing is great, but futile, because “the FAA will never let the airport close.”

It’s not a matter of legal analysis. They don’t have views about that. When I ask them how the FAA can force the City to operate the airport if the FAA doesn’t have the legal right to do so (assuming, yes, that the City can prove that in court), they shrug or roll their eyes.

We’re talking about some deep cynicism about the feds and the powers of politically-insulated, self-perpetuating, industry-captured agency.

In many ways, the staff report for Tuesday night’s meeting is a response to this kind of thinking because it outlines a practical (if, in my view, a somewhat too cautious) approach to extricating the airport land from the FAA’s grip. If the City’s lawsuit against the FAA was a bold stroke on constitutional and other high-minded principles, the staff’s recommendations want to treat the airport land like any other piece of real estate — not only real estate that the City can regulate under its municipal powers, but real estate that it owns and with respect to which it also has “proprietor’s rights.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that these tactics echo a line in a ruling the FAA issued in a 1998 proceeding brought by airport tenants seeking to negotiate from their landlord (the City) lease extensions beyond the expiration in 2015 of the 1984 Settlement Agreement between the City and the FAA. In that case the FAA itself ruled that after the City’s obligations under the 1984 agreement to operate the airport expires, what happens to the airport land will be “a local land use matter.”

Simple as that — “a local land use matter.” When the City finally pins the FAA down in court, where the issue will be the intent of the parties when they made the 1984 agreement, i.e., whether the parties to the 1984 agreement intended for it to supersede the infamous “perpetuity clause” in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer (IOT), the FAA is going to have a hard time explaining away that line from one of its official rulings.

In framing the airport’s future within the language and concepts of local land use matters, City staff recommends a series of measures. These include the re-leasing of airport facilities the City owns at market rates for the purposes of ending the City’s subsidies of the airport (but which will also open the airport up to non-aviation tenants that can pay higher rents); taking back and removing from airport use a crucial parcel of land that is not subject to the 1948 IOT (which would incidentally mean reconfiguring the airport with a much smaller runway that larger corporate jets could not use); reducing (or eliminating) aviation fuel sales at the airport; and otherwise requiring that all uses at the airport are compatible with the uses in surrounding neighborhoods.

These recommendations also echo recommendations that anti-airport organizations and the Airport Commission have made to reduce the impact of the airport and its operations, without necessarily causing a direct confrontation with the FAA. The anti-airport organizations have been vehement in exposing the negative impacts of the airport, and want the whole airport closed, but they have also been cautious in the tactics they recommend.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most striking sentence in the staff report is this one: “For years, community members assumed that the City could close the Airport in 2015 when the 1984 agreement with the federal government will expire.” That simple statement, which recognizes that it has always been the community’s understanding that the 1984 agreement was meant to the be the last extension of Santa Monica Airport’s operative life, should establish the context for all of the City’s future actions regarding the land there.

Land that will be the location for a great park.

Thanks for reading.

Future park.

Future park.

It was 20 some years ago today

It’s impossible not to be impressed with the job Residocracy and its allies did collecting signatures for the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. In retrospect they didn’t need to hire canvassers, since the paid signature gatherers only accounted for 2,200 or so of the 13,440 signatures Residocracy collected. Volunteers were all over the city: I was approached at least five times to sign.

Okay, I wasn’t going to sign it, but congratulations to those who joined together to do something they believed in. (Armen Melknonians, the founder of Residocracy, called it — he told Jason Islas of The Lookout on Feb. 7 that they’d get twice the 6,100 signatures that were needed.)

So now what? The layers of speculation are many. Will City Council repeal the development agreement or put it to a vote? Will Hines fight the referendum or throw in the towel and submit plans to re-use the old building? Can anyone mediate a new plan that would be acceptable to both Hines and the referendum supporters?

I can’t analyze these possibilities because the answers depend on data and calculations (not to mention psyches and emotions) out of my reach. More analyzable, although not necessarily predictable, are the prospects for the referendum if it’s put to a vote. That’s because Santa Monica has had referendums on specific projects before.

The votes that seem most relevant were the 1990 referendum on City Council’s approval of the hotel that Michael McCarty wanted to build at 415 Pacific Coast Highway (now the location of the Annenberg Community Beach House), and the 1994 referendum on the Civic Center Specific Plan.

The ’90s may seem to be a long time ago, but you know about the more things changing. How about this quote, which opens an October 1990 Los Angeles Times article about how development had supplanted rent control as the big political issue in Santa Monica:

Santa Monica, as City Council candidate Sharon Gilpin sees it, has lost its way.

While pursuing the admirable goal of finding money to pay for an ambitious array of social services, she says, the progressive politicians who have been running the city have struck a “Faustian bargain” with developers. The city may get the money it needs, but the price is a steep one: Hotels, office and commercial developments are transforming the beach community into a congested urban center.

In October, when local reporters are writing about the election coming up, how many names of candidates will they be able to substitute for “Sharon Gilpin” in that passage and cut-and-paste it into their coverage?

At issue in 1990 was McCarty’s beach hotel, which would have been built on state-owned land and which would have replaced a beach club that was beloved by many. The hotel was voted down overwhelmingly — 62% to 38%. This was also the election where voters passed measures prohibiting new hotels in the coastal zone and requiring that at least 30% of housing built in the city be affordable to moderate and low income households (which some interpreted as a means of stopping condo and other housing development). Earlier in 1990, City Council had repealed its approval of a big office development at the airport when presented with enough signatures to put the project on the ballot.

These victories gave the anti-development side confidence that they could block large-scale developments. When the City Council approved the Civic Center Specific Plan in 1993, which allowed for the development of about one million square feet of offices and housing, they collected signatures to put the plan on the June 1994 ballot. This time, however, the voters approved the plan overwhelmingly, 60% to 40%, notwithstanding the rallying cry against it that it would generate an additional 22,000 car trips a day.

I suspect we can still learn something from these votes. As I see it, there were these major differences between the McCarty hotel project and the Civic Center plan:

Private vs. Public. The McCarty plan was going to allow a private developer to make money, and specifically allow him to make money on public land. In contrast the Civic Center plan put the profit-making development on private land, and the landowner — the RAND Corporation — was a local, well-respected nonprofit institution. With the Paper Mate project, this factor could go either way. The profits will come from private investment in privately-owned land, but the developer is seen as the archetypal big developer from out-of-town.

Politics. Perhaps the key factor in the voters’ approval of the Civic Center plan was that the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics was split. The City Council vote approving the plan was 7-0 and the yes votes included two of the staunchest anti-development politicians of the time — Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen. In fact, Genser was one of the plan’s strongest proponents and had been deeply involved in its preparation (one reason why the plan was appealing). In contrast, the anti-development community was united against the McCarty hotel — as it is today against the Paper Mate project, where it believes it’s been ignored in the planning process.

Plan suitability/quality. The McCarty hotel project was well-designed for what it was (and it included major public amenities), but it replaced a use, the beach club, that people liked, and building a luxury development on the beach is never going to have mass appeal. In contrast, the Civic Center plan promised to turn a superblock full of surface parking lots into something nice.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

On this issue, I’d say the jury is out on Paper Mate: Hines will be able to give voters appealing “before and after” illustrations showing how they will turn the old factory into something better, but they’re going to be up against the reality that adding more office development to that gridlocked location seems instinctively wrong.

So who knows?

I also want to say something about the CEQA lawsuit the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) has filed against the Paper Mate project. I haven’t read the complaint and in any case I’m not a CEQA lawyer, and so I have no opinion about whether SMCLC has a good case (except that good luck to anyone up against the redoubtable Marsha Moutrie, crosser of T’s and dotter of I’s). I have to applaud SMCLC, however, for suing on the grounds that the EIR did not “properly study reasonable project alternatives” — particularly alternatives with more housing and less commercial development. As I wrote in February, it was the narrow scope of the environmental review that at the end made it impossible for the City Council to try to negotiate a better project with more housing and less commercial development.

Thanks for reading.

The time for speculation is now

Signature gathering for the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project wraps up soon, which means that I have little time remaining to speculate on the meaning of the referendum process before the result of the process complicates my analysis.

I suspect the referendum proponents at Residocracy will get the signatures they need, as I can’t recall a signature-gathering effort in Santa Monica that failed. Based on their having to hire paid signature gatherers, the process seems not to have gone as well as they predicted, but I assume all hands will be on deck to get the boat to the finish line.

The voters are there if they can reach them. The number of signatures needed, 6,100, is about the number of voters in Santa Monica (7,000 or so) who, at least by my computations, typically base their votes primarily on the issue of development, and of course there are even more voters who are willing to sign any petition against traffic.

But then, there are two things you can say about gathering signatures – it’s easy, and it’s hard.

It’s easy because signature-gatherers can always come up with a sound bite (“7,000 car trips!”) that simplifies the issue and sells it, and the fact that the gatherer is looking the potential signer in the eye in a real-life, not virtual, situation helps to close the deal. (Unless the target passerby is in don’t-bother-me mode.)

But gathering signatures is also hard. While 10% of voters, the threshold that needs to be reached, is only a small percentage of the electorate, it’s typically many more people than those who are active in the group promoting the ballot measure. It takes a lot of work to reach outside the core.

Consider Residocracy. As I recall, when the signature campaign started, Residocracy was saying it had about 400 members. To get 6,100 signatures one needs a cushion to cover invalid signatures, and so one needs something like 8,000 signatures. Meaning that each of the 400 needed to be responsible for an average of 20 signatures.

Sounds easy, right?

But think about it – think about your four closest friends; do the five of you know 100 different people you can get to sign something? I’m suspecting not – you probably know a lot of the same people. And the Residocracy 400 likely have overlapping Venn diagrams of friendships. So let’s say on average each of the 400 can get 10 signatures from their social circle. Now you’re up to 4,000 – which is a good base, but those are also the easy ones, the low-hanging fruit. The other 4,000 are harder.

As I mentioned above, the only definitive sign that the signature gathering has not gone as fast as expected is that Residocracy resorted to hiring paid signature gatherers, something Residocracy’s founder, Armen Melkonians, had said he didn’t want to do. Nothing wrong with that, but it does throw some reality onto the claims that those who signed up for Residocracy speak for residents collectively.

As for the meaning of the petition drive, it would be refreshing if what came out of the process is a recognition that no one in Santa Monica politics speaks for everyone, and that to win an argument one must make more of an argument than simply “this is what the residents want.”

I’m not going to hold my breath for that, but it appears that Santa Monica is in for some soul-searching. The City’s new survey on attitudes toward development is going to be chewed on quite a bit. I haven’t yet studied the survey in depth, but even looking at the numbers on the surface it’s apparent that people have much more complex attitudes toward local issues than are reflected in our political discourse.

Yes, people can want to make traffic flow better and also want more housing and good jobs.

Thanks for reading.

Creative Tensions vs. Blunt Instruments

So far two people I know and two I don’t have asked me to sign the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. The proponents are getting their message out. But I have declined to sign.

The Hines plan isn’t perfect, and I have standing to say that. As the plans for the Paper Mate site went through four years of gestation as the City wrote the LUCE and then adopted it in 2010, I argued in my Lookout columns that the City’s planners and consultants were calling for too much commercial development in the Bergamot area, which includes the Paper Mate site. My view was that all development in excess of existing zoning there should be residential.

Except for former mayor Paul Rosenstein, I don’t remember anyone from the public during the LUCE process arguing against the amount of commercial development — certainly not any of the key people who are today behind, the organization that is sponsoring the referendum. This was odd, because in 2008 the RIFT initiative was all about limiting commercial development. At the end of the LUCE process, former mayor Dennis Zane appeared before the council to criticize the amount of commercial development, but by then it was too late.

Ted Winterer, then on the Planning Commission, and Kevin McKeown on the City Council, argued for less commercial development, and there was a small reduction in part of the area (not the part with the Paper Mate site) before the council passed the LUCE on 7-0 vote.

Yet today critics see the amount of office space in the Hines plan as the worst element of it – certainly the element that will contribute to gridlock.

Why does the LUCE call for more commercial development in the Bergamot area? In fairness, a lot had to do with the times. City Council finally approved the LUCE in summer 2010, and the LUCE was drafted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, when governments everywhere, including here, were panicking about their budgets. The council received a financial analysis that pointed out, not surprisingly, that commercial development was better for the City’s bottom line than residential (more taxes, less services to provide).

We who predicted that more commercial development near the Water Garden, the Arboretum, and Colorado Center, would never pass a traffic smell test and that the city needed housing more than it needed “creative office” jobs, were told by planners that the traffic issue was moot because office development would attract more riders to the Expo line and that the housing that the city needs would be provided elsewhere — downtown and along the boulevards.

Three-and-a-half years later the City’s budget is on the mend, every housing development proposed for the boulevards is under attack, and folks who once said they loved the LUCE in part because of the community benefits it would link to development, now dispute even the concept of community benefits and proceed to attack City Hall for profligacy in the delivery of the exceptional services they demand.

Not to mention smell tests, but a more-or-less trivial (in the big scheme of things) increase in traffic predicted to be caused by the Paper Mate project has provoked a backlash that would not only stop the development, but also would likely kill the Bergamot Area Plan the City Council approved last fall.

So I understand why people support the referendum; indeed, Paul Rosenstein does, and that means a lot. But I don’t support it for two basic reasons.

The first is that while the plan that City Council approved is not perfect, it’s pretty good. It’s got the new streets that connect old industrial areas to the Expo line, it’s got housing in a good location, and it only adds about 150,000 square feet to the commercial development that is already there. The plan is so much better than the hulking factory that is there now, that it is unfathomable to me that anyone would risk having the place reoccupied. (Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis expressed this argument well in a letter they wrote to the Lookout.)

True, it would better if, as proposed by Ted Winterer at City Council and Richard McKinnon on the Planning Commission, those 150,000 square feet of office were converted to residential, and I wish that Hines had grabbed that deal. But Hines didn’t, and I don’t believe that 150,000 square feet of office development in a sea of millions of the same is worth having a war over and worth losing, quite possibly, the benefits of the plan that were worked out over seven years of planning and negotiations.

My second reason for opposing the referendum is that, as the referendum’s proponents say, the referendum is about “changing the nature of politics in Santa Monica.” If I can summarize my first reason for opposing the referendum as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” then I can summarize the second as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I mean, look around – compared to the rest of the California, or the universe even, is Santa Monica poorly governed? For the past 30 years, haven’t politics-as-usual here, overall, done a rather good job? In 2012 did you wonder why Richard Bloom, when he won election to the State Assembly, practically ran on a platform of being “Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom?” When it comes to government, complain all you want, but for everyone else in the region, Santa Monica is the top.

Even looking at Santa Monica through an anti-development lens, how many people realize that for 20 years, since the Water Garden opened, there has been virtually no new (not counting re-habs and replacement projects) commercial development in Santa Monica? Nearly all the development has been housing, which we need at all income levels, and which does not cause the gridlock people complain about.

Where is this massive over-development I keep hearing about?

Yes, my soul too has been crushed as I sit in traffic (as if souls are less crushed elsewhere in Southern California), but consider this: if you’re a Santa Monica resident and you work, your average commute time is significantly less than elsewhere in the region.

Doesn’t it mean something that if you own a house here, your property held its value remarkably well during the Great Recession? That we have excellent services and great schools, which our residents and City support? That we’ve consistently added over 30 years more park acreage? And doesn’t it mean something that our rent control laws have resulted in a remarkably stable community?

For more than 30 years the creative tensions in Santa Monica politics – including tensions between SMRR and its opponents, tensions among the various elements within SMRR, tensions created by shifting alliances to achieve various important goals, such as those relating to education, good jobs, homelessness, and youth violence – have been just that, creative.

The referendum approach is a blunt instrument, and I fear that from it the city will sustain blunt instrument trauma.

Thanks for reading.

The Paper Mate factory

The Paper Mate factory