How to build boxes on the boulevards

You may be familiar with the honor code of the Texas state legislature, as chronicled by the late Molly Ivins: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

After reading the staff report for Wednesday’s Santa Monica Planning Commission hearing on certain proposed amendments to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica’s general plan (LUCE), I’m thinking that the Texas code is not sufficient for Santa Monica. Maybe we need to add another disqualifier:

“If you can’t ignore panicked reactions to angry residents, you don’t belong on the Planning Commission.”

After a six-year process overseen by the Planning Commission, a process that involved remarkable public involvement, the City Council unanimously approved the LUCE in 2010. Back then the LUCE was popular. Even anti-development organizations then involved in Santa Monica politics, normally skeptical of anything emanating from City Hall, approved it.

So what happened? New anti-development groups, notably Residocracy, emerged. New politicians, such as Richard McKinnon, John C. Smith, Armen Melkonians, Phil Brock, and ultimately Sue Himmelrich, none of whom had been active in the LUCE process, also emerged. They hitched their wagons to the anti-development movement.

At the same time, battles were being fought over downtown hotels, battles that didn’t involve anything in the LUCE, but which provided endless fodder for opponents of development. Poorly considered preliminary plans for the Miramar got the Huntley Hotel involved, and the Huntley became a financial and organizational resource for the new anti-development players.

Then in early 2014 the City Council approved the Hines Paper Mate project on a 4-3 vote. The Hines project followed the LUCE guidelines closely, but it was unquestionably large, and suddenly the anti-development forces had, literally, a big target. Worse, because the one big failing of the LUCE was that it allowed for too much commercial development near Bergamot Station, the Hines project would have placed a lot of jobs at a location that was already overwhelmed with commuter traffic.

After defeating the Hines project, the anti-development forces looked for more targets. They found some on the boulevards. Wednesday night the Planning Commission will consider stripping from the LUCE a few mild encouragements for building something other than retail boxes on our boulevards.

Specifically endangered are two potential “activity centers” on Wilshire, one at 14th and one at Centinela. There the LUCE would allow for small increases in development standards to encourage multiple property owners to join together to make better places for mixed residential and commercial developments by sharing parking, open spaces, etc. Pretty innocuous, really, especially since anything built under the activity center designation would be subject not only to the intensive public review of a development agreement, but also to the preparation, through a public process, of a separate area plan.

Similarly, development opponents want to eliminate, from most of the boulevards, “Tier 3” developments, which allow for more housing to be built but which require a development agreement.

The opposition to development along the boulevards from a few people, concentrated in neighborhood groups, has been fierce. The staff report includes euphemistic statements like “substantial community input has been submitted questioning the continued appropriateness of the Wilshire activity centers,” or that the LUCE’s tiers of development and development review, have “created community concern.”

“Questioning the continued appropriateness?” “Created community concern?” Now nice. But we’re not talking about a tea party—or maybe we are.

There’s a lot of anger in Santa Monica these days about development, but there’s no indication that the passion, though at times deep, is widespread. After all hubbub over Hines, the hotels, etc., leading up to the November election, turnout was abysmally low. Yes, the two candidates running for City Council who got the most votes, Kevin McKeown and Himmelrich, ran on anti-development platforms, but factors other than their anti-development support were more crucial to their victories. As it happens, neither one of them got even one-sixth of the registered voters in the city to vote for them.

No one in Santa Monica politics has a mandate and no one bestows them. Elected and appointed officials should vote according their own analysis of the facts, using their knowledge and expertise, not according to who yells loudest.

And they should respect the process. The LUCE isn’t perfect. It should be amended. The development standards in the old industrial areas should be changed so that all new development in excess of what’s there now should be residential. This would respond to the chief complaint about the Hines project, that it had too much office development and not enough housing. But if we’re going to amend LUCE, let’s have a real process, not just the Planning Commission and staff sending something to council in response to squeaky wheels.

Back in 2010 when some of us were arguing against how the LUCE encouraged office development around Bergamot, because we wanted to see more residential development, staff told us not to worry because residential development would be located on the boulevards.

Now with this possible capitulation to the anti-development side, the City might abandon the possibility of building significant housing along the boulevards. But in the “be careful what you wish for department,” the anti-development folks should consider what this would mean.

When properties on our boulevards turn over, as they surely will, if property owners build to Tier 1 standards (up to two stories, 32-feet high) to avoid discretionary review, what do you think they will build? There are two possibilities:

• Retail boxes on top of underground parking. On Wilshire, think Whole Foods or Staples.

• Or maybe two stories of offices, with a bank or brokerage on the ground floor.

If you’re concerned about traffic, what do you think generates more car trips, a bank or a store, or an apartment building?

Thanks for reading.


11 thoughts on “How to build boxes on the boulevards

  1. Pingback: Santa Monica’s housing element: a new episode! | The Healthy City Local

  2. Pingback: Amending the LUCE: at what point does Santa Monica give back the awards? | The Healthy City Local

  3. Pingback: Gruber: How to Build Boxes on the Boulevards | Santa Monica Next

  4. Astute and spot on, as always, Mr. Gruber. Santa Monica’s ill-informed elites (actually Tea Party counter-elites possessing a strange, vaguely Marxist-Birkenstock tinge), scared of any and all change, cling like all bourgeois dupes to that with which they are familiar — low density and slop architecture which creates no public spaces, no grace, and no points of interest. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the designed-by-committee library on 6th; aside from a half-pleasant sun drenched courtyard (gee!), it’s a mostly pre-fab concrete bunker that could easily be mistaken for a Public Storage site. Or, don’t like that image, think of Venice or Florence — what if these fine cities had been left in the hands of the city’s architecturally unenlightened and/or uneducated conformists, these nattering NIMBY’s of negativity who prefer to do nothing rather than create something of real interest? At best, Venice’s much-revered gondolas would be doing little more than tying up to some pathetic, jerry-rigged Big Blue Bus awnings (whose actual costs we will never really know) or maybe, say, a worthless Zucky’s sign. No matter, given the city’s current runaway spending, it’s only a matter of time before it will be desperate for new sources of revenue, and then, without planning, without real oversight, without a real vision, we will endure more of what’s been forced upon us all these years — a few concessions here and there based on an inordinate fear of satanic traffic jams, a few zoning exceptions (for those who “know” people), and a plethora of misbegotten, hurried-up site plan reviews. In other words, stay tuned for more of the same ill-advised “beige” city planning (if you can call it that) and architecture — a patchwork that follows neither rhyme or reason, lacks a respect for beauty and design, and serves no greater purpose other than that which is… expedient.

  5. Very good points, Frank. Thank you. People who are concerned with reducing traffic should welcome compact, mixed-use, development on the boulevards that allows more residents to access goods and services by walking and biking.

  6. It just took me 20 minutes to get from Washington and Ocean to 14th and Pico. And it was only 3:45. Huge traffic jams. gridlock at 14th and Colorado. For all the talk, the proof is in the pudding. And apparent for all to see. All good intentions re development will fail in light of the actual experience of residents. Enough is enough!

    • Tess — thanks for reading and commenting, but the kind of low-rise commercial development currently on Wilshire, and what will continue to be built only w/ somewhat bigger buildings with more parking, generates more traffic than apartments or condos with a little neighborhood-serving retail on the ground floor.

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