Santa Monica, post LUCE: slicing and dicing ahead

About 25 years ago laws designed to protect existing housing from demolition had made it difficult to build new housing in Santa Monica. Housing developers sued, complaining that Santa Monica was violating state laws designed to encourage housing. They won and the City had to revise its housing policies.

Santa Monica still wanted to protect existing housing, and the City devised a brilliant solution. City Council retained protections for housing in the neighborhoods, but enacted new zoning that allowed and encouraged housing in commercial districts downtown. It took a while for the new policies to have an impact because of the economic troubles of the ’90s, but by the end of the decade downtown developers were building significant numbers of apartments.

While most council members were happy with the new housing, some were not thrilled with the form it was taking. The developments were typically five-story buildings with ground floor retail, built with wood-frame construction above a first floor of concrete. Council members wanted more varied architecture and design elements such as courtyards that were open to the street.

The late Ken Genser was particularly concerned with these issues. He acknowledged that to allow for better design projects would need to be bigger; in fact the focus of his complaint was that developers were “slicing and dicing” projects to make them small enough not to be subject to discretionary development review, which then made amenities like courtyards difficult to provide.

I was reminded of this history as I watched the City Council’s hearing Wednesday night on the new zoning code. With planning staff and the council majority joining to reduce drastically the geography for Tier 3 developments, and to eliminate “activity centers” (on Wilshire today, everywhere tomorrow), expect to see more slicing and dicing.

It was only five years ago, with the approval of the new Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), that staff and the council were trying to encourage better developments, developments that would include public serving open-spaces, shared parking, grocery stores and other neighborhood serving retail, and other public amenities. To get these amenities (not to mention more affordable housing), the LUCE counted on developers to use Tier 3 and activity centers, because those larger projects would require development agreements. Development agreements get a bad rap, but it’s through them that the City can get more from developers.

I’m not one of those who believe that abandoning Tier 3 means no housing will be built. So long as interest rates are low and tenants will pay monthly rents of $4 per square foot, developers will find ways to build. But with the elimination of Tier 3 and activity centers, forget the public spaces, shared parking, etc.

Imagine you’re the owner of the property underneath a big grocery store or shopping centers on a boulevard. When the day comes when you want to turn the property over, what do you think you’ll do? Try to build something big, with a public plaza, shared public parking, and a supermarket? Or slice and dice your land and build boxes?

In much of the city, there is no longer even that choice. In the post LUCE environment, the rule will be “make no big plans.”

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I also get the feeling that staff and some members of the council expect that by eviscerating the LUCE they will mollify the most vociferous voices against any development that doesn’t conform to idealized mid-20th century suburbia. Dream on. As these council members approve developments that fit the new standards, they will become the new targets of anti-development wrath.

Which makes me think of Ken Genser again. Genser was the original and most creative of all anti-development politicians in Santa Monica. Strongly protective of neighborhoods, instigator and supporter of various down-zonings, Genser nonetheless made distinctions. He supported the two most contentious developments that arose during his time on council, the original Civic Center Specific Plan and the downtown Target.

Genser never wavered in his belief in a low-scale city, but he ultimately concluded that those who were most adamant against development could never be satisfied. Each reduction in development standards only moved the goalposts. Near the end of his life Genser even opposed Measure T, the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic,” that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) put on the 2008 ballot.

The goalposts continue to move. For more than 30 years most Santa Monicans have agreed that Santa Monica should closely regulate development and the City has responded by restricting development. (We all know the facts, that there has been little development in Santa Monica.) But every few years a new crop of anti-development activists rise up and act as if they are the first people to notice that traffic is bad. How else do you explain that the LUCE, which anti-development groups, such as the SMCLC, lauded when it was passed, has now become, five years later, the embodiment of evil to the new group, Residocracy, and other new, anti-development voices?

As cities evolve, change is disorienting. But we wouldn’t have neighborhoods we love, like Ocean Park, Pico, or Wilmont, or now downtown, and tens of thousands of Santa Monicans wouldn’t live in those neighborhoods, if change hadn’t happened.

Change can enhance what we have already. Main Street is not even a boulevard, but consider what’s happened north of Ocean Park Boulevard. Various groups of residents opposed the apartments and retail that replaced the Boulangerie, the CCSM affordable housing at Main and Pacific (with its local-serving shops), and the Urth Cafe. But they all got built and they’ve turned those blocks into a better neighborhood center than what was there before.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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.