Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.

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In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.

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At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.

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This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.

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Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

What would Arcadia do?

Let me begin my further ruminations and fulminations on the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) with a quibble, namely the failure to include in the DCP’s historical background section mention of Arcadia Bandini de Baker as a founder of Santa Monica. The DCP identifies as founders only Arcadia’s husband, Col. Robert Symington Baker, and Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones, while arguably Arcadia was the most important of the three for Santa Monica’s history. (I don’t mean to offend the dignity of Señora de Baker, but I’ll take the liberty of using her first name, since in her day she was well known by it.)

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Santa Monica’s first resort hotel, Arcadia’s namesake, was here.

Arcadia was enormously wealthy. She was rich not only from being a member of a Californio land grant family, but also from what she had inherited from her first husband, Abel Stearns, perhaps in his day the richest man in southern California, and from her own business acumen. A true California, Arcadia never spoke English, at least not in public, conducting all her many business dealings in Spanish.

It’s true that Baker, whom Arcadia married in 1875, had acquired the land that would become Santa Monica before their marriage, and he owned it when, a few months after he and Arcadia married, he and Jones (who brought the railroad to Santa Monica), sold the first lots at auction. Arcadia, however, was right there, involved in designing how the town was subdivided, making sure there was land for schools, churches and parks. Even more significant, in 1877 Baker sold the land to Arcadia and Jones and it was those two who then formed the Santa Monica Land and Water Company. Later, Arcadia collaborated with Collis Huntington when he built the Long Wharf and tried to make Santa Monica the region’s great port.

Arcadia lived out her days in a mansion on Ocean Avenue (near her friend, Georgina Jones) and was a great philanthropist. She and Senator Jones donated the land for Palisades Park, the land for the Westwood veterans home, and land for other public purposes. When she died in 1912 she left a fortune estimated at between eight and fifteen million dollars, the equivalent of hundreds of millions today. In her lifetime and after she was known as the “Godmother of Santa Monica.”

Unfortunately, the DCP is not the only place where the City has recently neglected Arcadia’s legacy. Last month the City installed historical pavers in the sidewalk on Fourth Street north of the downtown Expo station, and they name only Jones and Baker as Santa Monica’s founders.

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Etched in concrete: Baker and Jones, but no Arcadia.

Maybe the omission from the DCP of one Latina from Santa Monica’s history is a small thing when the document is, after all, about the future not the past. Overall the DCP’s historical section (pp. 60-65) is a fair retelling of the booms and busts of downtown. The omission of Arcadia, however, strikes me as a melancholic symbol of how cramped our thinking today is about our future.

Santa Monica has always been a dynamic place, always changing, with residents willing to face the future with open and optimistic eyes. While to some extent the DCP itself acknowledges this history, it is, as I wrote previously, a political document, and the politics it responds to are the politics of fear.

Few experienced in their lifetimes more change than Arcadia. She was born on a Mexican rancho in 1827, and died in “L.A.” in 1912. Consider the changes Arcadia experienced and the challenges they must have created, and how she dealt with change and responded to challenges: namely, with foresight, industry, and optimism. (I suspect she was optimistic until the end, since she died without a will, setting off an epic battle over her estate!)

Compare the magnitude of the changes Arcadia confronted to the mere possibility of incremental, even trivial, changes today that cause so much fear and panic. How many times have we heard angry residents declare and demand they have a right not to have their city change from what they bought into 30 years before, when what’s on the table is a 5% increase in our housing stock over 20 years?

Think of how much time and money and angst have gone into the DCP, and before the DCP the LUCE, and we’re not yet done 13 years into the whole combined process. And for what? The DCP will affect only about 20% of the land in downtown, if that, and the political arguments are over the margins. Should the basic height limit be 60 feet, or 84? Should the Tier 2 FAR be 3.25 or 3.5? Should the threshold for development agreements be 60,000 square feet or 100,000? Should Tier 3 developments be allowed beyond a few blocks near the Expo station? Even the arguments over the “large” sites are small potatoes when looked at in the context of all of downtown.

It’s not like one side wants to dredge the harbor and bring back Jones’ and Huntington’s vision of a great port in Santa Monica Bay, and the other side wants to revert to grazing cattle. It’s not like one side wants to bring back Douglas Aircraft and Pacific Ocean Park, and the other side wants to close down the Promenade.

Unfortunately, the DCP reflects our politics by seeking a low common denominator. It’s no accident that Residocracy’s Armen Melkonians says he likes the plan. It’s a plan drafted to appease a minority of Santa Monicans who blindly fear change.

I say “blindly” because the anger is incoherent. As a result, responding to incoherence, the DCP lacks logic. The DCP aims to please people not with a logical vision for the future, but by shaving down reasonable development standards for no reason other than appeasement.

Why do I say the “No” element in Santa Monica politics is incoherent? Consider:

  • They oppose “boxy” apartment buildings, but want limits on height that will guarantee boxy buildings.
  • They oppose developers “slicing and dicing,” but want to kill large-site developments.
  • They oppose development agreements, but want a low threshold for when a developer needs one.
  • They oppose, most of all, traffic, but oppose housing development instead of traffic-generating commercial development, housing development that would reduce commuter traffic, and they oppose limiting parking, which would also reduce traffic.
  • They say they want to save water, but they fight the kind of development (infill housing as opposed to sprawl) that uses less water.
  • Most fundamentally, they oppose the way things are, but they also oppose change.

Thanks for reading.

Election analysis: LV lost big, bigger than you think

I haven’t written here for a while. It’s easy for a little hiatus to become a long vacation, especially over the holidays, and especially, if you write a column about local news, when national news is all consuming. Yet given a national election where the electorate divided along the spectrum from urban to rural, has it ever been more evident that “all politics is local?”

Here in Santa Monica the November results are still resonating. The sensitivities of the losers of the election over Measure LV are raw, as evidenced by Tricia Crane, one of the authors of LV. Last week Crane, who is active in both Residocracy and Northeast Neighbors, criticized City Manager Rick Cole for identifying in an email “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development” as “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development.”

As reported in the Lookout News, Crane objected to Cole’s characterization of longtime vocal critics as longtime vocal critics because, “As one who believes that democracy depends upon the free exchange of information and ideas, I find the label ‘longtime vocal critics’ to be troubling.” This coming from someone who personally and through her organization has never found it troubling to call anyone who supports building anything in Santa Monica to be, if a politician, corrupt and, if not a politician, a tool of developers.

But wait, there’s more. Crane then told the Lookout that, “Measure LV was supported by 45 percent of Santa Monica voters.” This, as anyone who has studied the election results knows, is false. While LV received the votes of 45% of those voters who voted on the measure, a trouncing in and of itself, about 17% of Santa Monica voters did not vote on LV. As a result, far fewer than 45% of Santa Monica voters supported LV.

The numbers? The total number of ballots cast in Santa Monica in November was 51,662. The number of Yes votes for LV was 19,786. Divide the latter by the former and you get 38.3%. Yes, I know, only the votes cast for or against a measure count when it comes to victory or defeat, but consider the rhetoric that we’ve heard from the anti-development crowd over the years, about how they are the residents, and about how unhappy the residents are. Given that that’s been their mantra, and that’s why they put LV on the ballot, isn’t it their burden to show that that is true? (If you want to review the numbers yourself, click here to access a PDF of all the Santa Monica November results.)

To repeat: only 38.3% of Santa Monica voters supported LV. (By the way, the figures for RIFT in 2008 were about the same.)

About now LV supporters will tell you LV lost because of the money developers spent against it, but go ask the aviation industry whether money wins elections in Santa Monica.

Getting back to the results, there were only two precincts in the city where LV won, but even in those precincts (which are on the eastern edge of the city between Wilshire and Montana) the Yes vote was less than 50% of the total number of ballots cast.

What about self-appointed neighborhood associations that supported LV? They didn’t reflect their residents. Two of the most anti-LV neighborhoods were North of Montana, the home of historically anti-development NOMA and the base for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), and the neighborhood between Wilshire and Montana west of 20th Street, the home of the WilMont Neighborhood Coalition. LV lost also in Sunset Park.

But the LV numbers tell only half the story. Any measure will get a certain number of votes just for being on the ballot, particularly one that promises to solve traffic congestion. Thirty-eight percent of Santa Monica voters voted for LV, but how many are truly up in arms about development?

We received an answer to that question in November, courtesy of Residocracy’s founder, spec-mansion developer Armen Melkonians. Melkonians ran for City Council on a hard anti-development platform. In past elections most serious candidates running on an anti-development platform (and all of them who have won election) have run with the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Melkonians, however, was an anti-development candidate who ran a strong campaign without a SMRR endorsement. Not only that, but (future write-in candidate) Phil Brock cleared the decks for Melkonians by not filing papers to run for council, and SMRR left an open seat by not endorsing incumbent Terry O’Day.

How did Melkonians do? He received 12,603 votes. Divide that number by 51,662, the total number of voters, and Melkonians’ tally was 24.4%. Meaning that not even a quarter of Santa Monica voters were angry enough about development to pay attention to local politics and then vote for the candidate who channeled that anger.

That doesn’t mean government shouldn’t continue to regulate development. Government regulates lots of businesses and industries. But we shouldn’t let the most extreme “vocal critics” set the agenda and control the debate.

These election results are, by the way, consistent with data from the City’s surveys over the years about the attitudes of residents. Most are happy to live in Santa Monica, and when asked (open-ended and unprompted) to name issues that concern them, only about a third mention traffic (and many fewer mention development).

Yet we have a political class that runs for cover whenever Residocracy or SMCLC say they speak for the residents.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare

For a liberal like me, it’s hard not to be cranky after Donald Trump’s TKO (i.e., Electoral College) defeat of Hillary Clinton. True, my mood was elevated somewhat by the local KO of Measure LV, but it took another hit when I turned my attention to the political issue of the day in Santa Monica, namely the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) now under review by the Planning Commission.

The latest draft of the DCP, issued in February, is the product of what is looking to be a never-ending sequence of planning processes. These began a dozen years ago with the start of what was supposed to be a two-year process to revise the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City’s general plan. The LUCE took six years of process before the City Council adopted it in 2010. Updating the Zoning Ordinance then took another five years (2010-15). During that time the City began the process to fill in a major gap left open in the LUCE, namely downtown Santa Monica (DTSM), and the draft DCP is what we now have for those efforts. After Planning Commission review, and further revision, the DCP is scheduled to come before City Council next spring.

Perhaps what’s most frightening about the DCP is that on its very first page of text, in an introductory section imagining a stroll in DTSM 20 years hence, the reverie ends with the statement that, “citizens in that far-off time [2036] are actively engaged in the fourth five year-revision of the original 2016 Downtown Community Plan.” (Note: the earliest the DCP will now be enacted is 2017.)

The fourth revision? As noted in the report on the DCP that planning staff prepared for the Planning Commission meeting Nov. 16 (after holding hearings that night, the Commission will again take up the DCP at its meeting next Wednesday, Dec. 7), the DCP has “been the subject of citywide discussion for the past five years.” And we’re supposed to update it every five years? Should we start the “citywide discussion” now for the 2022 update?

And note: it’s taken five years (and we’re not done yet) to plan for 20 years of development of only about 44 blocks, most of which already have buildings that are unlikely to be replaced for decades, or even this century.

Naturally, “citywide discussion,” what we’ve been having for five years, is a euphemism. For what (you ask)? Well, primarily for an out of control process that wastes everyone’s time. But that’s not the whole story. At the heart “citywide discussion” is a euphemism for elected officials not having the courage to let city staff plan, goddamn it, and then demand that staff give them something to vote on.

No, I don’t blame the hard-working and abused-by-the-public planners who drafted the DCP for the years-going-on-decades of “conversation.” I blame the electeds, and the succession of city managers since 2004, who themselves know plenty about planning, and could probably write the documents themselves, but who are afraid to make decisions without cover of meeting after meeting.

These meetings go nowhere, because they are designed to placate people who are opposed to change in any form, including the reasonable evolution of our downtown, people who will never be satisfied or persuaded by anything, let alone by more “conversation.” The City Council wants to placate the un-placatable, residents unhappy with change who don’t like downtowns and urban life in general, and don’t like our downtown in particular, what with its horrid tourists and young, happy, and “transient” apartment dwellers.

Further, the data and input that come from repeated meetings, including the eight months of outreach staff conducted since publishing the draft DCP in February, are by their nature going to be inconclusive. The more sequences of meetings there are, the more layers of iteration, the more inconclusive the data are going to be. People have different opinions. Planners must listen carefully to the public because the public has real world knowledge and ideas, but you can’t get plans from the public because, for one reason, members of the public don’t agree with each other. (And for now I’ll only mention the fact that staff didn’t bother talking to any of the workers at downtown hotels, people who, as opposed to many residents, are downtown everyday, who know the place and use the transit, and who might be able to use housing that could be built there.)

Memo to council members, to the Planning Commission, and to the City Manager: those residents you are trying to persuade to be happy with change have told you time and again that they won’t be persuaded. They will never be happy with any change that they imagine will add to traffic or that won’t restore the sunny days of their youth. Why don’t you cut the farce about pleasing them and get back to planning and deciding? At what point will you stop trying to make people love and respect you who at best look down their noses at you (Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City) or at worst despise you (Residocracy)?

Memo to council members: given (i) that anti-development targets Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day both won reelection without SMRR endorsements, (ii) that when all the votes are counted no-growther Armen Melkonians will likely have received votes from fewer than 25% of the number of Santa Monicans who voted this year, (iii) that yet again no candidate running on an anti-development platform has won election without a SMRR endorsement, and (iv) that RIFT and LV both lost decisively, is it too much to ask you to stand up and end our long municipal nightmare of perpetual planning? I.e., make some decisions instead of calling for more process?

Memo to council members and planning commissioners: If you believe that the charm and character of downtown will be destroyed if you allow buildings taller than 60 feet, fine. Vote that way. But can you finally vote? I.e., make decisions? Without fearing that the people will withdraw their love for you?

Finally, delay has substantive impact. The circumstances, economic, political, and otherwise, in which the LUCE process began in 2004 were quite different in 2010 when the LUCE was adopted, so much so that the LUCE was an artifact the night the council passed it, largely doomed not to be implemented.

Did I say I’m cranky?

Next time I’ll do some substantive analysis of the DCP. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

LV: I take it personal

Over the weekend my son Henry wrote a note to his Facebook friends explaining why he felt so personally threatened by the candidacy of Donald Trump. Henry, who is getting a Ph.D. in Ancient History at an Ivy League university, has no personal reason to worry about Trump. He has a lot of “privilege,” which he’s well aware of, and he’s not going to need an abortion.

What he wrote was that he feels, however, that Trump is attacking him personally because Trump attacks the kind of place where he grew up, namely Santa Monica, part of greater Los Angeles, a dynamic, multi-ethnic metropolis. In his words, Henry “grew up in the America that Republicans fear, the America that Donald Trump attacks.”

Henry’s piece made me reflect on why I am viscerally opposed to Measure LV, here in Santa Monica. I’ve been writing about LV the past few weeks, focusing on the policy and political issues. Dry stuff. But as I thought about it, much of my reaction to LV comes not from my policy wonk side, but from my personal experience.

I consider LV an attack on two generations of Grubers: my father and my son.

Why? Well, as for my father, as my parents crossed into their eighties, they were living in Philadelphia, far from any of their three children. They were “getting up there,” but as always they were cleared-eyed about the future. They knew they would need help.

Based on new zoning Santa Monica had adopted for downtown in the ’90s, for the first time developers were building apartments downtown on land zoned commercial. I wrote a column about the new apartments after seeing a billboard advertising them. My folks read the column and asked me about moving here, into one of them. I encouraged them to do so, and in 2003 they became the first tenants in a new building on Sixth Street, a little north of Colorado.

The proponents of LV despise the apartments that have gone up in downtown Santa Monica over the past 20 years. They say they ruin the character of Santa Monica. But to my parents that apartment on Sixth Street has been a godsend. My mother died in 2007, but my father still lives there. At 95 he doesn’t get out much, and he has nearly 24-hour care, but the apartment has preserved his way of life.

The apartment has been a godsend for me, too. The apartment is three blocks from my office, and I have lunch with Dad three or four times a week, and brunch on Sunday. We go out to dinner often—one of our favorite places is a Japanese place, Ninjin, around the corner. I can’t imagine how things would have worked out if my parents couldn’t have moved here.

What about the other Gruber generation, i.e., Henry, that I say LV attacks? At some point in the hopefully not-to-distant future Henry is going to have his Ph.D. and, assuming universities are still teaching about the Romans, he’s going to be looking for a job. Little would make him happier than to get one in L.A.—because he loves L.A. and he’d love to raise his family in Santa Monica. Fortunately, there are many terrific colleges and universities here that might hire him.

But let’s face it—a generation ago, when many of the proponents of LV were buying their houses, a college professor could afford a house in Santa Monica, but today? Forget it: if you’re young and you’re not a tech millionaire, how are you going to buy a house here?

Okay, but Henry is “urban” enough that, like many in his generation, maybe he doesn’t need a single-family house. What about a condo, or a nice apartment? Under LV, those aren’t going to be built in Santa Monica. The City already, rightfully, does a lot to preserve our residential neighborhoods, and little will built in them. Our new zoning thoughtfully directs new housing to commercial zones, like along the boulevards and downtown, and on former industrial lands, where no residents are displaced and connections to transit are usually good.

LV, by design (its author, Armen Melkonians, told the City Council that Santa Monica doesn’t need more housing) will prevent that kind of housing from being built.

In the name of preserving the character of Santa Monica, a character that has been evolving for a century, and a character that for 60 years or so has seen most of the city’s population live in apartments, the proponents of LV wish my Dad’s apartment had never been built and wish that a future home for my son, a son of Santa Monica, will never be built.

Sorry if I take it personally, but LV is an abuse of the character of our city.

Please Vote No on LV.

Thanks for reading.

Capitalists to the barricades!

This is another in my series of posts about the rationalizations that otherwise liberal voters use for supporting Measure LV. Of all of them, the one that is probably the most effective with voters tuning-in late to the issue is that LV must be progressive because those arch-capitalists, developers, are against it and spending big money to defeat it.

The reason is that after a century of ballot box governance Californians evaluate ballot measures by looking at “who’s for an’ who’s again’ ’em.” We all know that if tobacco companies or oil companies are against a measure, that tells you a lot.

With a progressive electorate here in Santa Monica, it’s always a bad sign if someone is going to make money one way or another. Although it’s generally okay here to make money producing movies, nearly every other capitalistic enterprise is suspect. The supporters of LV have made a big deal about developer profits, as anti-development activists have done for years. They’re constantly invoking the “greed” of developers, and they loudly denounce anyone who supports the building of anything as being “in the pocket of” developers.

But there’s no secret why developers are spending money to defeat LV. It’s because LV would put them out of business in Santa Monica. None of them are going to spend three or four years developing a project, only to put it up against the crapshoot of an election.

Say you had a business; what would you spend against a ballot measure that would close you down? Take this example: one of the founders of Residocracy is local realtor Kate Bransfield. What if residents, upset with how much they have to pay realtors when they sell their now multi-million dollar homes, put a measure on the ballot that would cap commissions at one half of one percent of selling price?

After all, back when homes in Santa Monica were bungalows owned by Douglas workers, realtors didn’t make nearly so much money. Realtors must be greedy if they want full commissions on the inflated prices of houses now. That money would better go into the retirement fund of the seller.

If such a measure got on the ballot, how much money do you think Bransfield and her fellow realtors would spend to defeat it?

Or here’s another example. Phil Brock, now a write-in candidate for City Council, last week wrote a S.M.a.r.t. piece for the Mirror (tellingly titled, “The Alchemy of Greed”) all about how developer “robber barons” had taken over Santa Monica, how they were spending big to defeat LV, and how voters had to pass LV to stop them. Brock’s day-job is running a talent agency, and presumably he runs it to make a profit. What if there were a statewide measure that would reduce talent agency commissions from the current regulated level of 10% to 5%? How much do you think Brock and his fellow agents would spend to defeat that?

It’s the shortage of housing in California that makes real estate development so profitable today, and the regulatory environment, including measures like LV, that make it so risky. It’s a perfect example of the risk/reward ratio in action. In America we rely on the capital raised by capitalists to build most housing, so if you get rid of developers, you’d better come up with a completely different system to house a growing population.

What’s incongruous about all this “to-the-barricades” anti-capitalist rhetoric from the LV camp is that it’s coming from capitalists, or at least from many people who are making money from the current housing crisis, namely homeowners in Santa Monica (and their realtors). It’s not only Bransfield: City Council candidate and Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians describes himself on the ballot as a “civil/environmental engineer,” but at at least one point in his life he was a developer of mansions in Bel Air.

It’s hard to take seriously any arguments the Residocracy camp makes against making money from real estate.

Thanks for reading.

No denying: LV is anti-development

Last week I wrote about the disconnect from generally-accepted-progressive-urban-policies had by people who consider themselves progressive but who support restrictive development measures like Measure LV. These progressive policies, whether they come from the Sierra Club or the Obama Administration, promote “infill” development rather than sprawl, particularly in affluent urban areas like Santa Monica and the Westside where policies restricting multi-family housing and high housing prices have excluded low- and even middle-income households.

In reaction to this disconnect, supporters of LV who nationally support liberal politicians and progressive causes search for reasons to make LV fit into the progressive mold.

The most basic rationale is denial. Against all evidence, including the express intentions of Residocracy, there are people in Santa Monica who deny that LV would prevent development or, at least, deny that it would prevent good development (however that might be defined). This has been the basic argument of the “S.M.a.r.t.” group of (mostly) architects who now write a weekly column for the Mirror. They’re not against development they say, only “over” development that’s not “properly” planned, and they say there can be plenty of good development within the 32-36 foot height limit of LV.

This is usually expressed in hopeful generalities, such as this from a recent S.M.a.r.t. column: “For Santa Monica to continue to be a progressive, livable city, we must find a way to balance our priorities of growth and quality of life. Our transition to the future will be successful only if we can plan ahead properly and act with restraint.” (Apparently, the “way” to achieve this balance is to adopt an extreme measure that puts nearly all development over two stories to a vote.)

One problem with this argument, nice as it sounds, is that it runs up against Residocracy’s purpose, which to stop development. To my knowledge none of the key founders of Residocracy, Armen Melkonians, Tricia Crane, and Kate Bransfield, have ever supported any development other than single-family homes. Melkonians, going back to when he first ran for City Council in 2012, has argued that Santa Monica is a “full bucket,” to which nothing can be added. In May of this year, he told the City Council that Santa Monica doesn’t need additional housing.

no-yes-photo

Not all supporters of LV consider themselves progressives: many oppose affordable housing as “over-development.”

Another problem with the S.M.a.r.t. argument is that LV is the opposite of “plan[ning] ahead properly.” Instead, LV is a nihilistic, fearful and angry reaction to good, forward-thinking and highly restrained, planning.

Residocracy created LV in response to 11 years of careful planning that began in 2004. The first six years were spent updating the land use and circulation elements (the “LUCE”) of Santa Monica’s General Plan. The LUCE directed new development away from neighborhoods, toward about five percent of Santa Monica’s land, land located downtown, along the boulevards, and in old industrial and other commercial zones. Talk about restraint. When City Council passed the LUCE in 2010, the slow-growth community in Santa Monica largely praised it. The next five years were spent drafting the zoning ordinance, which further reduced the amount of development allowed in the city.

All this planning resulted int policies and laws that would effectively convert land zoned for commercial development into residential development, thus providing needed housing and at the same time reducing the commercial development that generates traffic congestion.

Those eleven years involved much careful analysis, even more public input, and ultimately compromises that nearly everyone involved in Santa Monica politics, including politicians who had based their careers in opposing development, accepted. The only politicians who did not accept the outcome of this long process were those associated with Residocracy.

Residocracy’s response to the LUCE and the new zoning: We’re going to ignore all that, draft our own law, and get it on the ballot by telling people that they can sign here and stop traffic congestion. That’s planning ahead? Properly?

The result, if LV passes, would be the opposite of the “balance” that the S.M.a.r.t. writers say they want. Yes, many square feet can, and ultimately would, be developed under LV. But rather than go to the voters to get approval for a three or four-story apartment building on a boulevard, or a five or six-story apartment building downtown, development that would balance our priorities and improve our quality of life (by improving street frontages, improving walkability, etc.), any rational property owner or developer would slap up, by-right, with no review to speak of, a 32-foot tall retail or office development that would make the developer plenty of money and attract more drivers all day long.

Next: why opposing gentrification is not a reason to vote for LV.

Thanks for reading.