Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will likely make the final substantive decisions on the update to the City’s zoning laws. The update process began in 2010, when the council passed new land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) of the general plan, and the new zoning was intended to implement the LUCE. It’s been a slog, and instead of a bang, the whole thing is ending in a desultory whimper. No one seems happy—neither those who want more housing built, nor the Residocracy folks who are threatening a referendum to overturn the new law.
Nonetheless you can be happy about something. Our long municipal nightmare is over. It’s been eleven long years since work began on the LUCE, but when the council (in June) gives the zoning ordinance its final blessing we will finally have new land use policies in place for most of the city.
Yes, it’s taken eleven years, three city managers and three planning directors, but, to borrow another metaphor from a certain era, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think about it. It took a little city of 90,000 people eleven years to figure out how the city should evolve for about 20 years. And Washington is gridlocked?
I remember when this all began, in 2004. Back then Councilmember Pam O’Connor voted to begin the LUCE process only when staff assured the council it would take only two years. It should have taken only two years, since it was obvious that there were only two places to put new development, in the old industrial areas and on the boulevards. But with LUCE we managed to spend a few years analyzing “opportunities and challenges” and discovering “emerging themes.”
The process was at times poetic, and the best parts of the LUCE are poetic, but now the poetry has either been obliterated by events or is being removed from the LUCE with the nodding approval of those who were supposed to have believed in the LUCE the most: planning staff and councilmembers who voted for it. Plans to turn the industrial areas into vibrant neighborhoods are dead with the reoccupying of the Paper Mate site. With staff and a majority of councilmembers agreeing to remove Tier 3 and activity centers from most of the boulevards, we’re not going to get anything on the boulevards beyond box retail, two-story office buildings, and generic apartment buildings. What’s left in the LUCE? Not much that justified a six-year visioning process.
(The most disheatening aspect of the whole thing is the capitulation by planning staff. In tomorrow night’s staff report someone had the poor taste to remind everyone that the purpose of the activity centers was to “foster dynamic spaces by enabling the creation of mixed-use development at transportation crossroads on parcels of sufficient size to support creative design and to provide active and passive open space, affordable and market-rate housing, and shared parking facilities.” All of this “poetry” would, of course, only come after a process, called an area plan, to make sure that anything built would be appropriate for the context. But staff and a majority of councilmembers no longer trust themselves or their future replacements to do good planning, and they’ve caved, throwing activity centers out because they might allow development “that could be considered significantly out of scale.” Anything “could be.” Eleven years take their toll, but this is embarrassing.)
For all that’s left of the LUCE, the City could have accomplished just as much by drafting a specific plan for the industrial areas and by updating the zoning on the boulevards within the parameters of the old land use element. As for protecting the neighborhoods, little development was going on in the neighborhoods in 2004 and despite fears and fear mongering little is happening now. Why? It’s ironic, but ever since Costa-Hawkins went into effect in 1999 use of the Ellis Act to tear down old apartments has drastically decreased as apartment owners opt to charge higher rents when vacancies occur, upgrading when they can make money doing so. And the LUCE didn’t even deal with downtown—we’re still in the midst of that specific plan. A new circulation element? That could have been done separately.
But—at least it’s over, right? Hmmm. The LUCE is supposed to last until 2030. If it takes eleven years to update a land use element and draft a zoning ordinance, does that mean we need to start the whole thing again in 2019?
Thanks for reading.