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

14 thoughts on “Creative Tensions vs. Blunt Instruments

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

  2. Excellent article, Frank. Thank you for presenting the history of the plans that precede the Hines project’s ultimate approval, including the time it took to adopt them and the level of community involvement along the way. I too have refused to sign the referendum petition for the reasons you mentioned and what I consider to be the petitioners’ not telling the whole story when soliciting signatures. One example…the statement is being made that the DA passed by a slim margin at Council. True statement, but the three “no” votes were not because of the amount of square footage of the project, but, instead, the amount of commercial footage versus residential. A position I support. I also know that the Council tried to change the mix of commercial and residential but were told by staff that it was impossible due to CEQA. A position I really don’t understand since that would have down scoped the project from a traffic impacts standpoint. Thanks for pointing out how wonderful it is to live in Santa Monica. I have been here for 35 years and have no intention of moving.

    • It was the seven then on the council — meaning Pam, Terry, Gleam, Kevin and Bob, plus Bobby and Richard. Ted was on the Planning Commission then — he also supported it, but I can’t find a record of the commission actually taking a vote. I don’t believe that Tony at the time expressed an opinion.

  3. Mr. Gruber refers to the planning process of the LUCE in which residents had a voice. I remember there were developers or their representatives at every meeting. I remember
    that as the guidelines were developed there was very little said on the increase in height and density that would be allowed in exchange for so called community benefits.
    The construction of streets and sidewalks in the Hines development is considered a “community benefit” instead of an intrinsic pert of the development.
    Residents should not have to attend every planning commission meeting and council meeting to have their voices heard. Referendums and elections can and will make a difference for the future of our city.
    Lorraine Sanchez
    Santa Monica

    • Lorraine — it wasn’t like this was every meeting, these were the climactic hearings. Many people were at the hearings to ask the commission and council to reduce the maximum height at Bergamot by five feet or so, which had nothing to do with the amount or kind of development. I couldn’t believe that there was so little focus on the amount of commercial development, which was and is the big issue (it was kind of embarrassing, since I’d been writing so much about it!).

  4. I think there is some confusion regarding all the development around town. The projects along Ocean Avenue are City projects and are housing, including affordable housing. Plus, there is disruption along both Olympic and Colorado with the Expo rail project. Certainly, there are a lot of people that are just fed up with anything. It is not realistic to expect that nothing will be built in those two locations. It is fairly typical that people do not respond and participate during the planning phases in Santa Monica such as when the LUCE is being developed and discussed. Then, when a specific project is proposed, people tend to pay attention. I am not a fan of plannng by referendum. I have lived here my entire life and I agree with Frank. I would not want to live anywhere else.

  5. No one has asked me to sign. I hope that insufficient signatures are gathered. essentially I am against referendum government except for true emergencies, which this issue is not.

  6. Thank you Frank for your perspective on this issue. I too declined signing and wanted to read/ hear more before deciding. Your insight is helpful. As someone who has been away from Santa Monica for 22 years, recently returned, I am amazed how little development has taken place, like you mention. The traffic has increased but that is the case everywhere. The metro rail should help alleviate congestion – LA in general could certainly use more convenient public transit. Santa Monica residents can be proud of what the citizens have been able to keep at bay yet development should not be feared. Development with vision is necessary. The creative tension you speak about is important and is what keeps Santa Monica unique.

  7. Where is al the overdevelopment. How about the huge projects on Ocean Ave, the projects east of downtown/ Ther are hundreds of thousands of square feet of development in the pipeline that have been approved. You mention Richard ” I Inever met a development I didn’t like” Bloom, he was on the council when most of these developments were approved.
    Santa Monica is a beautiful city, many people care about keeping it that way.
    hundreds of thousands of square feet. The Developers own so much property
    that isn’t even in the pipeline. You mention Richard Bloom

    • Larry — the development I assume you’re referring to on Ocean, where RAND used to be, is nearly all housing (with some ground-floor retail). The development is on city-owned land and is half affordable to be operated by Community Corp of SM. The development is according to a plan approved by voters on at 60-40 vote — in fact, the plan the voters approved included 450,000 square feet of development that has been replaced by Tongva Park. So what you’re seeing built there is nearly all housing, and much less than what voters approved.

  8. Terrific piece, Frank. I want to talk to you about affordable housing and the likely ballot measure (local) to pay for it in November. It is, by far, the most important challenge facing SM (though overshadowed by the development wars).

    Sent from my iPhone

  9. Good analysis. If anyone were to try and list all of the many positive and wonderful things about living, working or visiting in Santa Monica, it would take a very long column indeed!

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