Track Records and Traffic Engineers

The other shoe has dropped, and we won’t be seeing Jeff Tumlin at any public meetings in Santa Monica. It’s too bad, because Tumlin had an ability to help people see the forest instead of the trees when it came to managing traffic. Simply put, what Tumlin was telling us, and which a lot of Santa Monicans came to understand during the LUCE process, was that if you want to reduce the amount of traffic, you need to address your policies to the amount of traffic, and that you can’t control traffic indirectly by trying to prohibit development, because in a growing region ultimately development is going to happen.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend, a Santa Monica resident who is active in the city and her neighborhood but not particularly involved in the politics of land-use. She had, however, been following the Tumlin controversy, and she told me that people she was talking to from the anti-Tumlin side were saying that his “theories” about reducing traffic through reducing parking and increasing density and access to alternative forms of transportation had never been proved, and that “real” traffic engineers scoffed at the theories because there was no “track record.”

I was kind of stunned. You mean, traffic engineers are bragging about their track records? Who else do they want to blame for the transportation and quality of life disasters of the past half-century? To be blunt, traffic engineers were presented with a problem of how to facilitate movement in a growing region, and they blew it.

Ever since the ’20s Southern Californians have been complaining about traffic. The solution from traffic engineers and other planners (okay, the traffic engineers weren’t working alone) was always to solve the problem by (i) increasing road capacity (meaning freeways and six and eight lane “boulevards” with vestigial sidewalks), (ii) dispersing development (sprawl), and (iii) requiring parking everywhere. On the short run, when the concrete was fresh, these policies could help some people get around in their cars (while impoverishing the urban core, but that’s another story), but on the not-so-long term the result not only was our long regional traffic nightmare, but also some of the ugliest urban vistas in creation, elephantine carbon-footprints, and a world where millions need to drive to the gym to get the exercise equivalent of a good walk.

So let’s get this straight: now that there’s no room to build more freeways or to widen the boulevards, now that we’ve reached the limits of sprawl, and now that we can’t build an 800 square-foot apartment without building 700 square feet of parking, the traffic engineers are saying that people who want to try another approach don’t have a track record?

I should say at this point that what Tumlin proposes has by now gone beyond the theoretical stage (and didn’t originate with him anyway, as he would tell you in second). Nonetheless, let’s assume, like the intelligent design folks say about Darwinism, that we’re just talking about theory, and let’s acknowledge that in the history of urban planning, like in the history of everything else, there have been some disastrous theories.

But does that mean we have to keep banging our heads with something that didn’t work?

What Jeff Tumlin proposes for Santa Monica isn’t for the benefit of developers. It’s for the benefit of us.

Thanks for reading.

Apparently History Matters

In its open letter denouncing Jeff Tumlin, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) not only objected to his use of the term “NIMBY” to describe the anti-development faction of Santa Monica politics, but also took issue with the statement in his bio that, “[f]or decades, Santa Monica politics had been dominated by NIMBYs…”

The SMCLC claimed that Tumlin was “dead wrong” about this, explaining that:

The development history of Santa Monica is one of rapid growth, with over nine million square feet of new development added during the period Mr. Tumlin cites. (Which greatly exceeded our 1984 General Plan.) No one can reasonably say that “NIMBYs” have stopped development in Santa Monica or “dominated” Santa Monica politics.

So history is not bunk after all; it’s important. Who is right, Jeff Tumlin or the SMCLC? I’d say there is some truth in both statements, but overall, both sides choose the trees they want to look at and miss the forest.

Has, as the SMCLC says, the development history of Santa Monica been “one of rapid growth?” Certainly from a perspective going back to 1875, or even 1940, the answer is yes, but Santa Monica’s growth since 1960, especially compared to that of the surrounding region, has not been rapid. Santa Monica’s population is roughly the same now as it was 50 years ago, while the population of Los Angeles during that time increased about 60%.

During those years, though, Santa Monica’s economy evolved from manufacturing-based (in the ’50s, Douglas Aircraft alone employed about 20,000 workers) to offices, and offices generally generate more employees per acre than factories. Santa Monica became even more of a jobs center. But again, the development of the formerly empty areas surrounding Santa Monica was much more “rapid.” (Think Century City, Westwood, and the Sepulveda, Wilshire and Olympic corridors — much more and faster development there than in Santa Monica.)

True, as the SMCLC says, Santa Monica approved 9 million square feet of office development (when the 1984 plan had predicted 4.5 million), but it wasn’t “during the period Mr. Tumlin cites” – it was in the ’80s, 25 years ago, not in the period he’s referring to (the period before the City hired his firm to work on the LUCE).

It was in reaction to those approvals in the late ’80s that a specifically anti-development faction appeared in Santa Monica politics, but it’s important to remember that when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981 it immediately “confronted the Growth Machine” (as described by William Fulton in the first chapter of his The Reluctant Metropolis). SMRR instituted a moratorium over development and ultimately enacted major down-zonings. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits the city gained from these actions. That’s why I say that in Santa Monica we’re all anti-development — I don’t know anyone in Santa Monica politics who doesn’t believe those down-zonings were successful.

All the subsequent fighting between the anti-development faction that emerged in the late ’80s and the traditional progressive wing of SMRR and other elements in Santa Monica politics that see the need for and benefits that can be obtained from development has to do with whether one believes that the down-zoned limits on development provide a good basic framework for development or if one believes that they are only a starting point for further reductions in allowable development.

Which brings us to the SMCLC’s question: can anyone “reasonably say that ‘NIMBYs’ have stopped development in Santa Monica or ‘dominated’ Santa Monica politics”?

My answer is yes and no.

The fact is, hard as it is to believe, that since construction of the Water Garden, the last of those 9,000,000 square feet, only one significant new office development has been built in Santa Monica; that was the Lantana project on Olympic (which totaled about 250,000 square feet of new development).

In the mid-90s Santa Monica began to experience growth in the housing sector, mostly downtown, but one can’t entirely attribute that growth to decisions made locally. The City lost a lawsuit in the early ’90s over its housing policies: the courts found that they were too restrictive. California also passed laws requiring cities to make the building of housing easier. As a result, the City had to liberalize its housing policies, regardless of local politics (although many Santa Monicans believe this was good policy anyway). Since then Santa Monica has seen considerable housing development, nearly all of it in commercial zones.

But housing development in Santa Monica (in commercial zones) has not been as controversial as commercial development; even the SMCLC’s signature piece of proposed legislation, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (later known as Measure T), did not limit residential projects.

As I see it, for 20 years Santa Monica has followed, in the big picture, sensible development policies: it has drastically reduced office development (which contributes the most to traffic congestion) and it has given the housing sector some time to catch up to the over-building of offices.

While Jeff Tumlin was incorrect to write that “NIMBYs” dominated Santa Monica politics (especially not “for decades”), those in the anti-development faction don’t comprehend how successful they have been. I find myself often telling my anti-development friends (and yes, I have them) that they should cheer up: they’ve won most of the battles.

But they don’t feel cheerful. That’s because the pendulum swings. The anti-development wave hit its high-water mark in 1999, when, with the election of Richard Bloom to City Council there was for the first time a majority on City Council from SMRR’s anti-development wing. For a brief period the anti-development faction “dominated,” but the anti-development majority began to fragment in 2001 when Ken Genser voted in favor of Target. The wave crested in 2003 when Michael Feinstein cast the decisive vote not to reappoint Kelly Olsen to the Planning Commission and by the middle of the decade most of the anti-development council members had found that a strict anti-development stance didn’t work. The LUCE process began in 2004 and for six years dominated land use politics. Now a backlog of projects fills the pipeline, and the anti-development faction feels beleaguered.

Let’s hope that everyone will stop calling each other names and start talking to each other about a Santa Monica version of “bipartisan” solutions. Growth and change are going to happen, and we need to channel those energies into productive results that are good for everyone.

Thanks for reading.

The Other N-Word

When he used “NIMBY” to describe the opponents of development in Santa Monica Jeff Tumlin violated consultant rule number one – don’t embarrass your employers – but his doing so at least brings up a question, one that I have wondered about for years, which is what should one call the political faction that most consistently opposes development in Santa Monica?

I’ll confess that when I was writing my Lookout column, I used words like NIMBY and “no-growther” that I knew riled up people who ­– after all – believed in good faith that they were being reasonable when they opposed every project that came down the pike. I even invented a term, “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change,” that may have been technically accurate, but which wasn’t nice at all.

There are people in town, with whom I’m probably in agreement about the issues 90% of the time, who are still mad at me.

But at the same time I found it hard to be political friends with people who described the Planning Commission when I was on it as being “rubber stampers” for developers. Planning staff were also rubber stampers, or worse, and of course the plans being stamped were always those of a “greedy” developer.

To this day, it’s absurd that people accuse the likes of Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who have long and consistent records regarding their views about land use and how cities should develop, views that are, by the way, consistent with an overwhelming amount of research and thinking about urban and environmental problems, of being corrupted by the fact that some developers support their candidacies when they run for office.

It’s one thing to mock the fervency by which a group of your opponents believes in their case, it’s quite another to call people you disagree with corrupt.

But advocates from all sides in Santa Monica development politics, and I’ll include myself, are guilty of using intemperate language to describe political opponents. As for me, I have resolved in the future to use nothing more provocative than the adjective “anti-development” to describe the faction of Santa Monica politics represented by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. (Not that anyone who is not in that faction is necessarily “pro-development;” we’re all slow-growthers in Santa Monica.)

I don’t know, however, if “anti-development” will satisfy anyone. The anti-development faction likes to be referred to simply as the “residents,” and they speak of themselves in that manner – they are the residents and this is what they want (or don’t want). They get help for this from local news media, which habitually refer to any group that opposes something as the “residents,” as in the typical headline that begins “Residents Oppose…” It’s like the word “some” doesn’t exist in their word processors. There are many meetings of the City Council or the Planning Commission where half (or more) the speakers who live in Santa Monica are in favor of something, but our media typically refer only to the opposition as “the residents.”

But we all like conflict, the more elemental the better. The press likes to depict development issues, which typically involve complex social and economic issues and an equally complex cast of characters, as a zero sum game between the developer and the “residents.” No one else counts.

Take this as you will – as someone who, as a columnist, did my share of over-simplifying the views of people I disagreed with, I’m only a poor sinner who has now discovered the gospel, that it’s not only sticks and stones that break bones.

Thanks for reading.