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.

 

It was 20 some years ago today

It’s impossible not to be impressed with the job Residocracy and its allies did collecting signatures for the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. In retrospect they didn’t need to hire canvassers, since the paid signature gatherers only accounted for 2,200 or so of the 13,440 signatures Residocracy collected. Volunteers were all over the city: I was approached at least five times to sign.

Okay, I wasn’t going to sign it, but congratulations to those who joined together to do something they believed in. (Armen Melknonians, the founder of Residocracy, called it — he told Jason Islas of The Lookout on Feb. 7 that they’d get twice the 6,100 signatures that were needed.)

So now what? The layers of speculation are many. Will City Council repeal the development agreement or put it to a vote? Will Hines fight the referendum or throw in the towel and submit plans to re-use the old building? Can anyone mediate a new plan that would be acceptable to both Hines and the referendum supporters?

I can’t analyze these possibilities because the answers depend on data and calculations (not to mention psyches and emotions) out of my reach. More analyzable, although not necessarily predictable, are the prospects for the referendum if it’s put to a vote. That’s because Santa Monica has had referendums on specific projects before.

The votes that seem most relevant were the 1990 referendum on City Council’s approval of the hotel that Michael McCarty wanted to build at 415 Pacific Coast Highway (now the location of the Annenberg Community Beach House), and the 1994 referendum on the Civic Center Specific Plan.

The ’90s may seem to be a long time ago, but you know about the more things changing. How about this quote, which opens an October 1990 Los Angeles Times article about how development had supplanted rent control as the big political issue in Santa Monica:

Santa Monica, as City Council candidate Sharon Gilpin sees it, has lost its way.

While pursuing the admirable goal of finding money to pay for an ambitious array of social services, she says, the progressive politicians who have been running the city have struck a “Faustian bargain” with developers. The city may get the money it needs, but the price is a steep one: Hotels, office and commercial developments are transforming the beach community into a congested urban center.

In October, when local reporters are writing about the election coming up, how many names of candidates will they be able to substitute for “Sharon Gilpin” in that passage and cut-and-paste it into their coverage?

At issue in 1990 was McCarty’s beach hotel, which would have been built on state-owned land and which would have replaced a beach club that was beloved by many. The hotel was voted down overwhelmingly — 62% to 38%. This was also the election where voters passed measures prohibiting new hotels in the coastal zone and requiring that at least 30% of housing built in the city be affordable to moderate and low income households (which some interpreted as a means of stopping condo and other housing development). Earlier in 1990, City Council had repealed its approval of a big office development at the airport when presented with enough signatures to put the project on the ballot.

These victories gave the anti-development side confidence that they could block large-scale developments. When the City Council approved the Civic Center Specific Plan in 1993, which allowed for the development of about one million square feet of offices and housing, they collected signatures to put the plan on the June 1994 ballot. This time, however, the voters approved the plan overwhelmingly, 60% to 40%, notwithstanding the rallying cry against it that it would generate an additional 22,000 car trips a day.

I suspect we can still learn something from these votes. As I see it, there were these major differences between the McCarty hotel project and the Civic Center plan:

Private vs. Public. The McCarty plan was going to allow a private developer to make money, and specifically allow him to make money on public land. In contrast the Civic Center plan put the profit-making development on private land, and the landowner — the RAND Corporation — was a local, well-respected nonprofit institution. With the Paper Mate project, this factor could go either way. The profits will come from private investment in privately-owned land, but the developer is seen as the archetypal big developer from out-of-town.

Politics. Perhaps the key factor in the voters’ approval of the Civic Center plan was that the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics was split. The City Council vote approving the plan was 7-0 and the yes votes included two of the staunchest anti-development politicians of the time — Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen. In fact, Genser was one of the plan’s strongest proponents and had been deeply involved in its preparation (one reason why the plan was appealing). In contrast, the anti-development community was united against the McCarty hotel — as it is today against the Paper Mate project, where it believes it’s been ignored in the planning process.

Plan suitability/quality. The McCarty hotel project was well-designed for what it was (and it included major public amenities), but it replaced a use, the beach club, that people liked, and building a luxury development on the beach is never going to have mass appeal. In contrast, the Civic Center plan promised to turn a superblock full of surface parking lots into something nice.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

On this issue, I’d say the jury is out on Paper Mate: Hines will be able to give voters appealing “before and after” illustrations showing how they will turn the old factory into something better, but they’re going to be up against the reality that adding more office development to that gridlocked location seems instinctively wrong.

So who knows?

I also want to say something about the CEQA lawsuit the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) has filed against the Paper Mate project. I haven’t read the complaint and in any case I’m not a CEQA lawyer, and so I have no opinion about whether SMCLC has a good case (except that good luck to anyone up against the redoubtable Marsha Moutrie, crosser of T’s and dotter of I’s). I have to applaud SMCLC, however, for suing on the grounds that the EIR did not “properly study reasonable project alternatives” — particularly alternatives with more housing and less commercial development. As I wrote in February, it was the narrow scope of the environmental review that at the end made it impossible for the City Council to try to negotiate a better project with more housing and less commercial development.

Thanks for reading.

The time for speculation is now

Signature gathering for the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project wraps up soon, which means that I have little time remaining to speculate on the meaning of the referendum process before the result of the process complicates my analysis.

I suspect the referendum proponents at Residocracy will get the signatures they need, as I can’t recall a signature-gathering effort in Santa Monica that failed. Based on their having to hire paid signature gatherers, the process seems not to have gone as well as they predicted, but I assume all hands will be on deck to get the boat to the finish line.

The voters are there if they can reach them. The number of signatures needed, 6,100, is about the number of voters in Santa Monica (7,000 or so) who, at least by my computations, typically base their votes primarily on the issue of development, and of course there are even more voters who are willing to sign any petition against traffic.

But then, there are two things you can say about gathering signatures – it’s easy, and it’s hard.

It’s easy because signature-gatherers can always come up with a sound bite (“7,000 car trips!”) that simplifies the issue and sells it, and the fact that the gatherer is looking the potential signer in the eye in a real-life, not virtual, situation helps to close the deal. (Unless the target passerby is in don’t-bother-me mode.)

But gathering signatures is also hard. While 10% of voters, the threshold that needs to be reached, is only a small percentage of the electorate, it’s typically many more people than those who are active in the group promoting the ballot measure. It takes a lot of work to reach outside the core.

Consider Residocracy. As I recall, when the signature campaign started, Residocracy was saying it had about 400 members. To get 6,100 signatures one needs a cushion to cover invalid signatures, and so one needs something like 8,000 signatures. Meaning that each of the 400 needed to be responsible for an average of 20 signatures.

Sounds easy, right?

But think about it – think about your four closest friends; do the five of you know 100 different people you can get to sign something? I’m suspecting not – you probably know a lot of the same people. And the Residocracy 400 likely have overlapping Venn diagrams of friendships. So let’s say on average each of the 400 can get 10 signatures from their social circle. Now you’re up to 4,000 – which is a good base, but those are also the easy ones, the low-hanging fruit. The other 4,000 are harder.

As I mentioned above, the only definitive sign that the signature gathering has not gone as fast as expected is that Residocracy resorted to hiring paid signature gatherers, something Residocracy’s founder, Armen Melkonians, had said he didn’t want to do. Nothing wrong with that, but it does throw some reality onto the claims that those who signed up for Residocracy speak for residents collectively.

As for the meaning of the petition drive, it would be refreshing if what came out of the process is a recognition that no one in Santa Monica politics speaks for everyone, and that to win an argument one must make more of an argument than simply “this is what the residents want.”

I’m not going to hold my breath for that, but it appears that Santa Monica is in for some soul-searching. The City’s new survey on attitudes toward development is going to be chewed on quite a bit. I haven’t yet studied the survey in depth, but even looking at the numbers on the surface it’s apparent that people have much more complex attitudes toward local issues than are reflected in our political discourse.

Yes, people can want to make traffic flow better and also want more housing and good jobs.

Thanks for reading.