So far I’ve avoided writing about Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative” (LUVE), but now that the Santa Monica City Council will be discussing its merits in a few weeks (at the council’s July 12 meeting) I’ll stop avoiding the unavoidable.
What’s most interesting to me as a political observer is how Residocracy has, with LUVE, fractured the anti-development coalition that has been so successful over the years in setting the Santa Monica political agenda. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that Council Members Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer, two of the most articulate voices skeptical of development in Santa Monica (and two of the city’s most popular politicians), are both strongly opposed to LUVE.
Both McKeown and Winterer were strong supporters of the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (RIFT), the measure that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City put on the ballot in 2008. But LUVE is quite different from RIFT.
RIFT only limited commercial development, which put RIFT squarely in the mainstream of anti-development politics in Santa Monica going back to 1981 when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) first took power in Santa Monica and the City became, to borrow from historian William Fulton (The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to challenge the Los Angeles growth machine. In fact, there were many of us who opposed RIFT only because of its bringing ballot box government into the planning process, not because of its goal of reducing commercial (particularly office) development.
While it is true that during the ’80s SMRR-dominated city councils enacted laws making it harder to build housing (and that during that time little housing was built), paradoxically the purpose of the laws was to save housing. The idea was to preserve existing apartments by making it more difficult and less profitable to tear them down to build condominiums. When the City was sued on the basis that these impediments to building housing violated state law, and lost, the City’s response was brilliant: it maintained, even strengthened, the obstacles to building in residential districts, but satisfied state law by making it easier to build housing in commercial districts (particularly downtown).
I well remember in the mid-’90s, when the City Council was considering the new downtown zoning, listening, at a meeting of the Ocean Park Community Organization, to SMRR leader Dennis Zane try to persuade the late anti-development leader Laurel Roennau why it was good to build housing downtown. (The strategy of protecting neighborhoods by focusing development in commercial zones later became the organizing principle for the LUCE updates to Santa Monica’s general plan.)
Indeed, housing, particularly affordable housing, has always been central to SMRR’s agenda, and has always been popular with Santa Monica voters. When SMRR first challenged the growth machine in the ’80s, one of its goals was to require office developers to pay for affordable housing. In 1990 voters passed Measure R, which requires that 30% of the housing in the city be affordable to low and moderate income households. In 1999 Santa Monica became one of the few cities where a majority of voters approved the building of affordable housing.
The big battles over development since the ’80s have been about commercial development, not housing. There was the Civic Center Plan, which went to the ballot in 1994, and where most of the controversy concerned the expansion of RAND’s offices and RAND’s entitlement to build 250,000 square feet of spec offices. Then there was Target in 2001, a 100% commercial project. Now we have fights over hotels that are essentially commercial developments even though they include housing in the form of condos. Until Residocracy came along, there was little controversy (and that primarily about design issues) over the housing built in Santa Monica since the new zoning in the ’90s, nearly all of which was built downtown.
The recent Paper Mate battle is another case in point: the problem with the project was its adding hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices. At the council meeting where the project was approved, Ted Winterer made a motion to approve it if the developer turned another (the fourth) of the project’s five buildings into housing; Tony Vazquez seconded the motion. If the developer had jumped up and said Yes!, the outcome could have been different. The project might have passed on a 6-1 vote; if so, SMRR would have been less likely to have supported Residocracy’s referendum to overturn the approval. (The vote might even have been 7-0; although McKeown had not said that he would have accepted the total size of the project, he, along with other many other opponents of the project, such as Zane, had said emphatically that what he wanted at the site was housing, not more offices.)
The proponents of LUVE know that they have a problem politically with the housing issue. In their statements and writings in support, they deny that LUVE would prevent housing from being built, and claim that LUVE would protect existing housing. The measure itself is drafted to present the illusion that it supports housing development: it exempts from the 32-foot height limit 100% affordable housing projects (but only up to 50 units, and with the demise of redevelopment it’s almost impossible to build 100% affordable projects anyway), and 77 properties identified as suitable sites for housing in the City’s general plan (but only up to a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 2.5, which would likely mean that a landowner or developer would instead opt for a by-right commercial development flying under the 32-foot limit).
Given this history, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this break between Residocracy, whose leaders have made clear their belief that Santa Monica does not need more housing, and others who are skeptical about growth, but who nonetheless know that we need to house the next generation. They read the papers, and nearly everyday there’s an article about California’s housing crisis.
Although I often quote the Freud phrase, “the narcissism of small differences,” to explain how people largely in agreement can nonetheless have bitter disputes over the iota’s of their disagreements, it’s dismayed me that in Santa Monica people who largely share the same communal values nonetheless continually find themselves in noisy and acrimonious disputes when it comes to development. (And I’ll include myself.)
But as I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that “housers” in Santa Monica have largely united against LUVE. It’s like the Hillary/Bernie fight. At times bitter, but as Paul Begala said, “nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.”
Thanks for reading.