About 25 years ago laws designed to protect existing housing from demolition had made it difficult to build new housing in Santa Monica. Housing developers sued, complaining that Santa Monica was violating state laws designed to encourage housing. They won and the City had to revise its housing policies.
Santa Monica still wanted to protect existing housing, and the City devised a brilliant solution. City Council retained protections for housing in the neighborhoods, but enacted new zoning that allowed and encouraged housing in commercial districts downtown. It took a while for the new policies to have an impact because of the economic troubles of the ’90s, but by the end of the decade downtown developers were building significant numbers of apartments.
While most council members were happy with the new housing, some were not thrilled with the form it was taking. The developments were typically five-story buildings with ground floor retail, built with wood-frame construction above a first floor of concrete. Council members wanted more varied architecture and design elements such as courtyards that were open to the street.
The late Ken Genser was particularly concerned with these issues. He acknowledged that to allow for better design projects would need to be bigger; in fact the focus of his complaint was that developers were “slicing and dicing” projects to make them small enough not to be subject to discretionary development review, which then made amenities like courtyards difficult to provide.
I was reminded of this history as I watched the City Council’s hearing Wednesday night on the new zoning code. With planning staff and the council majority joining to reduce drastically the geography for Tier 3 developments, and to eliminate “activity centers” (on Wilshire today, everywhere tomorrow), expect to see more slicing and dicing.
It was only five years ago, with the approval of the new Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), that staff and the council were trying to encourage better developments, developments that would include public serving open-spaces, shared parking, grocery stores and other neighborhood serving retail, and other public amenities. To get these amenities (not to mention more affordable housing), the LUCE counted on developers to use Tier 3 and activity centers, because those larger projects would require development agreements. Development agreements get a bad rap, but it’s through them that the City can get more from developers.
I’m not one of those who believe that abandoning Tier 3 means no housing will be built. So long as interest rates are low and tenants will pay monthly rents of $4 per square foot, developers will find ways to build. But with the elimination of Tier 3 and activity centers, forget the public spaces, shared parking, etc.
Imagine you’re the owner of the property underneath a big grocery store or shopping centers on a boulevard. When the day comes when you want to turn the property over, what do you think you’ll do? Try to build something big, with a public plaza, shared public parking, and a supermarket? Or slice and dice your land and build boxes?
In much of the city, there is no longer even that choice. In the post LUCE environment, the rule will be “make no big plans.”
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I also get the feeling that staff and some members of the council expect that by eviscerating the LUCE they will mollify the most vociferous voices against any development that doesn’t conform to idealized mid-20th century suburbia. Dream on. As these council members approve developments that fit the new standards, they will become the new targets of anti-development wrath.
Which makes me think of Ken Genser again. Genser was the original and most creative of all anti-development politicians in Santa Monica. Strongly protective of neighborhoods, instigator and supporter of various down-zonings, Genser nonetheless made distinctions. He supported the two most contentious developments that arose during his time on council, the original Civic Center Specific Plan and the downtown Target.
Genser never wavered in his belief in a low-scale city, but he ultimately concluded that those who were most adamant against development could never be satisfied. Each reduction in development standards only moved the goalposts. Near the end of his life Genser even opposed Measure T, the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic,” that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) put on the 2008 ballot.
The goalposts continue to move. For more than 30 years most Santa Monicans have agreed that Santa Monica should closely regulate development and the City has responded by restricting development. (We all know the facts, that there has been little development in Santa Monica.) But every few years a new crop of anti-development activists rise up and act as if they are the first people to notice that traffic is bad. How else do you explain that the LUCE, which anti-development groups, such as the SMCLC, lauded when it was passed, has now become, five years later, the embodiment of evil to the new group, Residocracy, and other new, anti-development voices?
As cities evolve, change is disorienting. But we wouldn’t have neighborhoods we love, like Ocean Park, Pico, or Wilmont, or now downtown, and tens of thousands of Santa Monicans wouldn’t live in those neighborhoods, if change hadn’t happened.
Change can enhance what we have already. Main Street is not even a boulevard, but consider what’s happened north of Ocean Park Boulevard. Various groups of residents opposed the apartments and retail that replaced the Boulangerie, the CCSM affordable housing at Main and Pacific (with its local-serving shops), and the Urth Cafe. But they all got built and they’ve turned those blocks into a better neighborhood center than what was there before.
Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Thanks for reading.