Memo to council: make decisions and the priorities will take care of themselves

Tomorrow the Santa Monica City Council will convene in an extraordinary Sunday session to, in the words of the staff report, identify “which three to five of the many significant things the City is already doing should be the top priorities for the upcoming years.”

Due to prior commitments, including a general commitment to using Sunday mornings to preserve my sanity rather than wreck it, I’m going to miss the retreat, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s a good idea to prioritize. Our municipal government does try to do too much (meaning more than it has capacity for, not that there is too much to do), and even if all this activity is the result of good faith efforts to fix every problem, at some point it’s necessary to step back. When I look at the accomplishments of the City of Santa Monica, my belief in government in strengthened. But when I look at the ambitions, I at least begin to understand where traditional conservative thinking comes from.

The staff report lists twelve suggestions for the council to consider (I could suggest even a few more), and the report mentions in passing that staff has identified 68 high-level departmental goals for themselves. So pruning and prioritizing makes sense. If I were setting the agenda for a council retreat, however, I would prioritize some time for soul-searching. The root of the problem is that the council itself has a hard time making decisions and sticking to them, and is easily distracted by whatever is the crisis of the day, so that it wastes its own time and staff’s time going this way and that.

Take the LUCE, which is listed as one of many past “Strategic Projects and Priorities That Have Shaped Santa Monica.” When City Council in 2004 authorized staff to begin the LUCE process, the expectation was that the project would take two years. It took six and the final product didn’t even cover the crucial areas of downtown and the Bergamot district, which were left to more process to develop specific plans. More that than, the six-year process resulted in a LUCE that was soon gutted by a combination of the Hines Paper Mate fiasco and the zoning that was supposed to implement the LUCE but took five years to finalize.

How can government expect to sustain the vision to make good decisions over an eleven-year process? There were many immediate causes for all the delays, but the underlying cause was that the council was afraid to make decisions. It was always easier to authorize more process, hire more consultants, take more surveys, allow more public venting. The LUCE that resulted is itself a document that enshrines indecision, by making the most important future development decisions discretionary.

The most pernicious impact of the passage of time was that by the time the council voted on the key implementations of the LUCE, on Hines and the zoning ordinance, the focus and priorities, not to mention the membership, of the council had drastically changed from what they had been in 2004 and 2010.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this because last Monday the ultimate insult resulting from the epic failure of the LUCE, namely the “Pen Factory” re-do of the Paper Mate factory, came before the Architectural Review Board. In 2004 it was clear that the focus of future development in Santa Monica would be the old industrial areas around Bergamot, and that the key goal of the LUCE was not to repeat the planning failures of the 1980s, when the council authorized monolithic suburban-style office parks on former industrial properties. The most important piece of property in the area is the Paper Mate site, because of its size but even more important its location between the future Expo stop and the rest of the district to the north and east.

So eleven years later, after so much governmental effort, what role does government have in the redevelopment of this property into . . . monolithic offices? Drum roll . . . government gets to help pick out the paint colors, while it pleads with the new Pen Factory property owners not to hide the building behind a giant hedge. Government can’t even get them to remove a decrepit chain link fence that seals the property off from Olympic Boulevard.

What role did time play in this? For one thing, if the LUCE had been completed in two years, by 2006, when the economy seemed strong, staff and council might have been more confident reducing the amount of office development and increasing the amount of housing. As a result, the developer would have had to design a better project.

As it happened, these decisions were made in 2009 and 2010, during the Great Recession, and we had a City Manager new to Santa Monica who was panicked by the idea of having to provide services to a lot of new residents without offsetting taxes from businesses. We heard a lot about the virtues of “creative offices” and we had a consultant tell us that the purpose of the development there was, in effect, to generate more riders for Expo. Council unanimously passed a LUCE that allowed far too much office development in the Bergamot area.

Then, by the time the actual plans came up for approval, in 2014, times had changed again, and we know what happened then. As a result, we’re getting just what the LUCE was supposed to protect us against.

Santa Monicans have generally elected capable and knowledgeable councilmembers. What the council needs is confidence. They need to make decisions based on what they know and believe, not hide behind endless public process that satisfies no one and exhausts everyone. Then the priorities will take care of themselves.

Thanks for reading.

Sic transit transit center

Well, the other shoe dropped on the Paper Mate site. Hines sold the property and now the old factory’s 200,000 square feet will become offices, with another level of parking being excavated under the existing parking lots.

Turns out that the paranoia of City Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis was warranted. During the signature gathering on the Residocracy petition they warned, in an op-ed for the Daily Press, that the alternative to the plan the City Council passed was not a better version of the plan, but a repurposing of the existing building as offices, which would mean thousands of car trips, no traffic mitigations, and none of the $32 million in community benefits that were included in the Hines plan.

I’m waiting to see how long it will take for someone to accuse the developers of being greedy because they aren’t building, across from the Bergamot Expo station, plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc., accessible to the public.

Not to mention the nearly 500 units of housing we’re not getting—housing that a lot of people who work in Santa Monica could use, housing that would keep them off the streets, so to speak, during commuting hours. But housing was not a plus for many people who opposed the project, and that explains why they’re happy with the new plan.

If the paranoia of O’Day and Davis turned out to be prescient, Council Member, now Mayor, Kevin McKeown turned out to be not so good in the prediction department. In an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Press, headlined “Calling for more housing from Hines,” he said that fears that Hines would “walk away” from the deal were unfounded; that “[s]uch a walk away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica.” Give McKeown his due; he’s not backing down now that Hines did walk away. Last week he told Santa Monica Next that, “[t]his project [the new one], even as adaptive reuse, will disappoint many of us, but the original Hines proposal failed in even more massive (and likely more permanent) ways to make appropriate use of a challenging site.”

I hope Mayor McKeown is right about the new plan being less permanent, but I doubt it. The “Pen Factory,” as the development is being marketed, will be around for a long time. Not only because it will take a while to amortize the considerable investment in the remodel (notably for underground parking), but also because once the offices are up and running and paying some of the highest rents in the region, the likelihood that an owner would shut the place down for the several years it would take to build a new project is slim. Expect that the Pen Factory will be there for 20 or 30 years at a minimum.

But McKeown was right that the Hines plan should have had more housing and less offices. I’ve been saying that since before the City Council approved the LUCE, which enabled the Hines plan, in 2010. The plan was flawed, and it may sound like blaming the victim, but I blame Hines as much as I blame anyone else for the plan crashing and burning. The Residocracy folks can’t help themselves, they’re going to oppose development no matter what, but Hines had a choice. Hines was warned as far back as 2010, by its friends, that if it added more commercial space and commuter traffic to the corner of 26th and Olympic, it was going to be in trouble.

Hines could have pulled its own chestnuts out of the fire. During the Planning Commission debate over the plan, Commissioner Richard McKinnon, with then-commissioner Sue Himmelrich’s support, proposed a reasonable alternative with less office and more housing. At City Council, Ted Winterer proposed much the same thing, and Tony Vazquez agreed with him. If Hines, at the commission or even at the council, had jumped up and grabbed this offer, the plan could have been approved at the City Council on a 6-1, rather than 4-3, vote.

That could have had a huge impact, because I doubt that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) would have joined Residocracy to oppose a plan that had had that much support among the SMRR-endorsed council members. Residocracy without SMRR might have been able to gather the signatures, but they wouldn’t have had much credibility looking ahead to November.

But then . . . maybe Hines didn’t care. The local Hines people put their heads, hearts and souls into the project, for six years, but headquarters back in Dallas probably figured they could find a willing buyer at a good price if the whole thing became just too complicated. Investors can’t wait forever. And Hines did follow the LUCE development standards, and they reduced their original project by 20 percent, so they legitimately thought they were playing fair. After the referendum, they had the right to feel that they’d never get a fair chance.

So, just how bad is the new project for Santa Monica? Pretty bad. But I’ll discuss how bad in a future post.

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.

Creative Tensions vs. Blunt Instruments

So far two people I know and two I don’t have asked me to sign the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. The proponents are getting their message out. But I have declined to sign.

The Hines plan isn’t perfect, and I have standing to say that. As the plans for the Paper Mate site went through four years of gestation as the City wrote the LUCE and then adopted it in 2010, I argued in my Lookout columns that the City’s planners and consultants were calling for too much commercial development in the Bergamot area, which includes the Paper Mate site. My view was that all development in excess of existing zoning there should be residential.

Except for former mayor Paul Rosenstein, I don’t remember anyone from the public during the LUCE process arguing against the amount of commercial development — certainly not any of the key people who are today behind, the organization that is sponsoring the referendum. This was odd, because in 2008 the RIFT initiative was all about limiting commercial development. At the end of the LUCE process, former mayor Dennis Zane appeared before the council to criticize the amount of commercial development, but by then it was too late.

Ted Winterer, then on the Planning Commission, and Kevin McKeown on the City Council, argued for less commercial development, and there was a small reduction in part of the area (not the part with the Paper Mate site) before the council passed the LUCE on 7-0 vote.

Yet today critics see the amount of office space in the Hines plan as the worst element of it – certainly the element that will contribute to gridlock.

Why does the LUCE call for more commercial development in the Bergamot area? In fairness, a lot had to do with the times. City Council finally approved the LUCE in summer 2010, and the LUCE was drafted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, when governments everywhere, including here, were panicking about their budgets. The council received a financial analysis that pointed out, not surprisingly, that commercial development was better for the City’s bottom line than residential (more taxes, less services to provide).

We who predicted that more commercial development near the Water Garden, the Arboretum, and Colorado Center, would never pass a traffic smell test and that the city needed housing more than it needed “creative office” jobs, were told by planners that the traffic issue was moot because office development would attract more riders to the Expo line and that the housing that the city needs would be provided elsewhere — downtown and along the boulevards.

Three-and-a-half years later the City’s budget is on the mend, every housing development proposed for the boulevards is under attack, and folks who once said they loved the LUCE in part because of the community benefits it would link to development, now dispute even the concept of community benefits and proceed to attack City Hall for profligacy in the delivery of the exceptional services they demand.

Not to mention smell tests, but a more-or-less trivial (in the big scheme of things) increase in traffic predicted to be caused by the Paper Mate project has provoked a backlash that would not only stop the development, but also would likely kill the Bergamot Area Plan the City Council approved last fall.

So I understand why people support the referendum; indeed, Paul Rosenstein does, and that means a lot. But I don’t support it for two basic reasons.

The first is that while the plan that City Council approved is not perfect, it’s pretty good. It’s got the new streets that connect old industrial areas to the Expo line, it’s got housing in a good location, and it only adds about 150,000 square feet to the commercial development that is already there. The plan is so much better than the hulking factory that is there now, that it is unfathomable to me that anyone would risk having the place reoccupied. (Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis expressed this argument well in a letter they wrote to the Lookout.)

True, it would better if, as proposed by Ted Winterer at City Council and Richard McKinnon on the Planning Commission, those 150,000 square feet of office were converted to residential, and I wish that Hines had grabbed that deal. But Hines didn’t, and I don’t believe that 150,000 square feet of office development in a sea of millions of the same is worth having a war over and worth losing, quite possibly, the benefits of the plan that were worked out over seven years of planning and negotiations.

My second reason for opposing the referendum is that, as the referendum’s proponents say, the referendum is about “changing the nature of politics in Santa Monica.” If I can summarize my first reason for opposing the referendum as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” then I can summarize the second as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I mean, look around – compared to the rest of the California, or the universe even, is Santa Monica poorly governed? For the past 30 years, haven’t politics-as-usual here, overall, done a rather good job? In 2012 did you wonder why Richard Bloom, when he won election to the State Assembly, practically ran on a platform of being “Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom?” When it comes to government, complain all you want, but for everyone else in the region, Santa Monica is the top.

Even looking at Santa Monica through an anti-development lens, how many people realize that for 20 years, since the Water Garden opened, there has been virtually no new (not counting re-habs and replacement projects) commercial development in Santa Monica? Nearly all the development has been housing, which we need at all income levels, and which does not cause the gridlock people complain about.

Where is this massive over-development I keep hearing about?

Yes, my soul too has been crushed as I sit in traffic (as if souls are less crushed elsewhere in Southern California), but consider this: if you’re a Santa Monica resident and you work, your average commute time is significantly less than elsewhere in the region.

Doesn’t it mean something that if you own a house here, your property held its value remarkably well during the Great Recession? That we have excellent services and great schools, which our residents and City support? That we’ve consistently added over 30 years more park acreage? And doesn’t it mean something that our rent control laws have resulted in a remarkably stable community?

For more than 30 years the creative tensions in Santa Monica politics – including tensions between SMRR and its opponents, tensions among the various elements within SMRR, tensions created by shifting alliances to achieve various important goals, such as those relating to education, good jobs, homelessness, and youth violence – have been just that, creative.

The referendum approach is a blunt instrument, and I fear that from it the city will sustain blunt instrument trauma.

Thanks for reading.

The Paper Mate factory

The Paper Mate factory

Paper Mate: Small differences, big differences

Because of a family obligation Tuesday evening I didn’t watch the City Council’s deliberations on the Hines Paper Mate project until last night, and I tried to wait before forming any opinions until I watched the hearing, because I knew there would be subtleties. (I suggest watching the video from at least the 1:50 mark; the press coverage of the hearing has also been good, with the most detailed analysis coming from Lindsay Miller in Santa Monica Next. I also recommend Jason Islas’ article in The Lookout in which he collects the reactions of several former mayors – they disagree, but they all have important things to say.)

What I learned from watching the meeting was that the council was even more closely divided than the 4-3 vote indicates, and that the obstacle to a broader agreement that would have garnered five or even six votes turned out to be fear of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). To see how close the councilmembers were to reaching a compromise, one needs to follow the motions the councilmembers made.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown made the first motion, which was to return the project to staff to study turning the entire project into residential, with only ground-floor retail as commercial development. This was the proposal that former mayor Denny Zane and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights have been suggesting.

While McKeown’s motion was dead on arrival for various reasons, it’s significant that he did not call categorically for a reduction in the size of the project. He did say that he wanted to see a project that would generate no net new car trips, but he pointed out that office development, on a square footage basis, produces three times the traffic of housing; it is conceivable that an all residential/ground-floor retail project at the 765,000 square feet proposed in the plan would not generate more traffic than what would be generated if the existing factory were turned into offices.

So, McKeown recognized that considerable development was appropriate for the site, and he wasn’t necessarily calling for a down-sizing. Nonetheless, the motion was never going to get four votes, and for at least a couple of reasons.

The first was that at least four council members believe that the project is better with some office development and, as Councilmember Gleam Davis pointed out, no one during the updates of the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), including, by implication, McKeown, had called for development in Bergamot to be 100% residential.

The second reason McKeown’s motion was DOA turned out to be the crucial factor in the whole debate, namely that changing the plan in any significant way would cause so much delay that a majority of councilmembers believed that the whole project would be in jeopardy. They feared that Hines would throw in the towel and reoccupy the factory site, thus stymieing the redevelopment of the area pursuant to the LUCE and the recently passed Bergamot Area Plan.

To a significant extent this problem was a result of the failure, as identified by former mayor Michael Feinstein in the aforementioned Lookout article, of the City to have had a more residential project evaluated under CEQA and negotiated with the developer. But beyond that, something was missing at Tuesday night’s meeting that would have been necessary to alter the project: any negotiation with the developer. If you have watched City Council deliberations on development agreements before, you know that there are typically several moments when the developer’s attorney asks for time to consult with his client, and then informs the council what changes in the agreement his client would agree to.

I wasn’t in the room, but from the video none of that seemed to happen Tuesday night, which makes me think that the councilmembers who were concerned about delay had grounds to believe that there was not going to be much more negotiating. But neither could they assure Hines that what they decided on Tuesday night would be approved later.

This problem about certainty became even more apparent with a motion from Councilmember Ted Winterer. Winterer proposed changes to the project that I and many others would have liked to see: he proposed restricting office development to one building, essentially replicating the square footage that now exists in the factory, and converting the second proposed office building into housing. This would have made all added square footage, and 70% of the whole project, residential.

It appeared that Winterer’s motion could have garnered four or even five or six votes, but it was staff’s view that it would take months for environmental review for this new configuration, and there was no way for the council to approve the plan before then, meaning that council couldn’t close a deal. The motion lost 5-2. (McKeown voted against it because he thought the project would still have too much office.)

Winterer’s motion was particularly significant because when he and Councilmember Tony Vasquez, who both ultimately voted no on the project, voted yes on the motion, they voted yes on a project with the full 765,000 square feet. The was reminiscent of what happened at the Planning Commission, where Richard McKinnon, Susan Himmelrich, and Jennifer Kennedy, commissioners who all ultimately voted no on the project, all voted in favor of a similar, “full-sized but more residential” proposal that McKinnon made.

With all the charges flying around about developer campaign contributions corrupting the four council members who voted yes, the fact is that because of the many virtues of this project as a whole, virtues that are well known to the council members and the planning commissioners, two councilmembers and three planning commissioners whom the anti-development side supports voted for a project that is only marginally different from the project that passed. (In fact, the project that passed has increased levels of affordable housing because of amendments Councilmember Gleam Davis proposed.)

When Winterer’s motion failed, it was Davis who made a last-ditch motion to try to garner more than a four-vote majority. Her proposal did what neither McKeown’s nor Winterer’s did: she moved explicitly for a reduction in size, by removing about 42,000 square feet of office development and not replacing it with housing. She did this in hopes of picking up one or two more votes, but neither Winterer nor Vazquez supported her.

Well, maybe they would have if that motion had come to a vote, but it all became moot because staff, even though the environmental review would take less time since the project was only being reduced in size, could not find a means for the council to approve the project with the reduction before all the documents and plans were changed to reflect it. A majority of councilmembers were concerned that without any certainty of approval Hines would reoccupy the factory and there would be no deal.

What we saw Tuesday night was a failure of CEQA and the triumph of form over substance. The purpose of CEQA is to give decision-makers data relating to the environmental impacts of their decisions, and, sure enough, the councilmembers were well aware from environmental review of the relative impacts of office and residential development. They had plenty of knowledge on which to base a decision to increase the amount of housing.

In the view, however, of the City Attorney and planning staff, CEQA would not have been satisfied, or, and this was important, at least not satisfied enough in the face of expected litigation. In effect, it’s not sufficient for the councilmembers to base their decision on what they know from environmental review if what they learned didn’t originate precisely within the scope of the environmental review. CEQA, instead of protecting the environment, became an impediment to the council’s adopting an alternative that would have had less impact than the plan the council approved.

In the end, a bare majority of four councilmembers approved the project, as modified in certain respects, including to increase affordability.

At the heart of this approval was the LUCE, and it was clear that the four councilmembers of the majority believe in what the council did when it unanimously adopted the LUCE in 2010, calling for development of considerable office space in Santa Monica’s former industrial areas. They believe that more offices near the light rail will help with traffic in the long run. I suspect they also believe that Hines played by the rules, developing a project in accordance with the LUCE ratios, and that it wouldn’t be fair to change those rules now.

Mayor Pam O’Connor also made the point that 82% of Santa Monica residents who work, work outside the city, and that we can also reduce traffic by locating jobs nearer to them. True, but we all know the traffic pattern that is the worst is the inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon. Perhaps the most reassuring comment for those of us who believe we need more housing in the area instead of offices came from Councilmember Terry O’Day, who pointed out that none of the 33 currently pending development agreements propose any offices.

While by Santa Monica standards the Paper Mate project is a big development it will add only about 150,000 square feet of office development on top of the square footage of the existing factory, while building almost 500 units of housing. There are millions of square feet of office in the area and more elsewhere on the Westside, and 150,000 square feet aren’t going to make a big difference. In square footage terms, 70% of the net new development is residential.

Still, the battle lines are being drawn, there is talk of a referendum and everyone expects a nasty election in November fought over development issues. Freud has that expression I like so much, “the narcissism of small differences.” When I consider how small the difference was between the proposal Winterer and Vazquez voted for and the plan that passed, and when I reflect on the fact that McKeown at least contemplated a 765,000 square foot project with his motion, I start to think of Freud.

Thanks for reading.