The local vote: preliminary post-mortem

Shell-shocked after the presidential vote, I’ve been slow putting my thoughts together on the local election. In fact, when analyzing local elections it’s a good idea to wait a few weeks until the final results are certified. The results rarely change (except occasionally in a close City Council race, as Ted Winterer will ruefully acknowledge), but until all the absentee and provisional ballots are counted, one can’t speak about important matters like total turnout, or how different neighborhoods voted.

But in the meantime I can make a few points.

The defeat of Measure LV. Again, the final numbers aren’t in, but it looks like LV, the “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative,” performed the same as its predecessor anti-development initiative, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) did in 2008. RIFT got 44% of the votes cast on it, and right now LV is also at 44%. RIFT got about 36% of all votes cast—we won’t know that number for LV until we have the final returns.

While there are Santa Monicans who want no more development, and many residents who will vote yes on anything that promises to do something about traffic (and in a certain sense who can blame them?), there is a solid majority that does not want to plan by ballot box and/or will not arbitrarily restrict future development based on arguments about traffic or community character.

The vote was consistent not only with RIFT, but also with past votes to allow the development of affordable housing (in 1999) and to adopt the 1994 Civic Center plan. The last time a measure aimed against development passed in Santa Monica was the 1990 vote on Michael McCarty’s beach hotel. In the meantime, despite opposition from some elements of the anti-development side, Santa Monica voters have passed many bond issues and taxes, including this year’s Measures GS and V.

They want to manage change intelligently, but most Santa Monicans are not afraid of it.

The LV side has already blamed their loss on the big money spent against LV. But the 2014 vote on the competing airport measures showed that massive expenditures do not persuade Santa Monica voters. The aviation industry spent almost a million dollars, outspending the anti-airport, pro-park campaign by about six-to-one, but still lost overwhelmingly.

Santa Monica voters are sophisticated. Once they have enough information to make up their minds (which takes a campaign because most residents don’t pay attention to local politics), they make up those minds. The anti-development side can’t have it both ways – they can’t claim repeatedly and vehemently that only they represent the residents, and then consistently lose elections. Not, in any case, without implying that residents are ignorant dupes.

Perhaps Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City will take these results to heart and start describing themselves as speaking for “many” residents, which is powerful enough. I doubt it. Speaking for others is a hard habit to break. One might also hope that they would stop describing people who disagree with them as corrupt, but what was startling in this campaign was how viciously the LV’ers attacked opponents who had long been slow(er)-growth standard-bearers. All of a sudden stalwart controllers of growth like Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer were the tools of developers, on the take. I tip my hat to them for taking the abuse; I hope that they are aware that they were only getting in the back what opponents of the no-change mindset get thrown in their faces everyday.

As for the City Council election, it was no surprise that the four incumbents won easily. The shocker was that Terry O’Day came in first. I assumed that since he was the only incumbent running without the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), he would be the trailing winner. In my recollection, neither Bob Holbrook nor Herb Katz, the council’s longtime non-SMRR members, ever finished first. O’Day also voted for the Hines project. He came in first nonetheless.

This year SMRR didn’t endorse O’Day and two years ago SMRR didn’t endorse Pam O’Connor. Both were elected. But for elevating the development issue above all other issues affecting Santa Monica, SMRR would now be in a situation where all seven members of the council owed their election to SMRR, or believed they did. Instead, now SMRR is back to where it was when Holbrook and Katz were the two independents.

I’ll have more when all the votes are counted.

Thanks for reading.

 

Moving goal posts and new players: the plight of anti-development politicians

After last night’s City Council meeting Councilmember Sue Himmelrich might understandably have a “no good deed goes unpunished” feeling. You see, Himmelrich proposed that council direct staff to prepare a ballot measure for November that would be an alternative to Residocracy’s LUVE initiative. Himmelrich, whom Residocracy endorsed when she ran for council in 2014, proposed a measure that would give voters the right to approve large projects, but one that would not be as draconian as LUVE and therefore (presumably) have a better chance of passing. Residocracy, however, slammed her and her proposal even before the meeting began.

On Monday, on Residocracy’s Facebook page, Residocracy’s Tricia Crane derided Himmelrich’s proposal, calling it “an attempt to confuse voters,” and one that showed the “desperation” of councilmembers (presumably Himmelrich) “to retain power and defeat the LUVE initiative.” Ouch. (Later Crane, I suppose to make sure her sentiments were not limited to Facebook users, forwarded the Facebook exchange to her neighborhood group, Northeast Neighbors—that email must have gone viral, because even I received it.)

Crane was right about the potential confusion. (If not about Himmelrich’s motivations, which seem sincere.) As pointed out last night by, of all people, Residocracy-nemesis Councilmember Terry O’Day, having two similar measures on the ballot would create confusion. If the anti-development vote were split, probably both would lose. The cynical thing would have been if the councilmembers opposed by Residocracy had supported Himmelrich’s motion. (Neither they nor any other councilmembers did, and the motion died without a second.)

As for Crane’s attack on Himmelrich, the first-term councilmember is not the first anti-development politician to engage the wrath of anti-development constituents feeling scorned. Even Councilmember Kevin McKeown, over many years the most consistent anti-development voice in Santa Monica politics, is now enduring nasty attacks because of his opposition to LUVE.

There’s a pattern. History repeats. (Not sure just when the attacks might have been tragic, but certainly, with the attacks on McKeown and Himmelrich, we’ve now reached farce.) For reasons that I’ll get into below, at some point anti-development politicians and their anti-development constituents tend to part ways. Consider what happened the first time Santa Monica elected a City Council majority consisting of members who had all been elected with anti-development support.

That was in 1999, when after a special election Richard Bloom joined councilmembers McKeown, Michael Feinstein, and the late Ken Genser, all of whom had been elected with anti-development support. In short order the four proceeded to replace the entire Planning Commission with anti-development activists drawn from neighborhood associations. Long-term planning in the City came to a stop, as the new commissioners, led by former councilmember Kelly Olsen, browbeat planning staff, whom they accused of being in the pocket of developers.

But the anti-development majority began to fall apart in 2001 when Genser, Santa Monica’s original anti-development councilmember, voted in favor of Target; the other three were opposed. Then in 2003 Feinstein infuriated the anti-development side by voting against reappointing Olsen to the Planning Commission. Not entirely coincidentally, Feinstein lost his bid for reelection in 2004.

As for Bloom (today, of course, Assembly Member Bloom), his views evolved as he became more involved with social and environmental issues. Although Bloom’s original political base was among anti-development homeowners in Sunset Park, by 2005 or so he had become a strong supporter of housing and economic development. By 2008, both Bloom and Genser opposed the RIFT initiative, and were on the outs with their original anti-development supporters.

So why do anti-development councilmembers and their constituents become estranged? The anti-development side will tell you it’s because all politicians are corrupt and ultimately get bought off by developers, but empirically that’s not true. The real reasons are more complex.

Briefly put, when it comes to the goals of the anti-development side, as soon as one goal is achieved, a new, more extreme goal is created. In Santa Monica, where everyone involved in politics wants to regulate development to some extent (we’re all Democrats, right?), this means that a politician elected on a platform advocating one level of regulation soon finds, after voting for regulating development at that level, that some aggrieved constituents want him or her now to adopt higher levels of regulation, levels that the politician might not be comfortable with, whether because he or she is aware of legal restrictions or simply because he or she doesn’t want to go that far in preventing change.

Consider what’s going on now. In 2004 City Council began the LUCE process, and responded to anti-development sentiment (i) by pushing nearly all new development into commercial and industrial districts comprising a small fraction of the City’s land area (a good idea) and (ii) by making nearly all significant development discretionary (not such a good idea). In 2010 the LUCE was finally adopted—with the support of the anti-development community.

But when, a few years later, City staff was drafting the new zoning ordinance, suddenly there was a new target: the largest projects allowed under LUCE, discretionary projects called “Tier 3.” Last year when the zoning ordinance finally came to a vote, the new anti-development majority (McKeown, Himmelrich, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer) voted to eliminate nearly all Tier 3 projects.

McKeown, Himmelrich, Vazquez and Winterer retained, however, LUCE’s Tier 2, the zoning standard that allows the continued building of the kind of housing (apartments over ground floor retail) that has been the standard in Santa Monica since the ’90s. Moreover, the four have voted several times to approve more of these apartments. These votes have infuriated the extreme anti-development element represented by Residocracy, i.e., those Santa Monicans who insist that new apartments are incompatible with the character of a city that is 70% renter. Which is why Residocracy has now brought forward LUVE, which would for all practical purposes eliminate Tier 2.

So there you have it, anti-development mission creep: limit development to commercial areas and make nearly all of it discretionary; eliminate Tier 3; eliminate Tier 2. If you don’t follow us every step, you’re a paid stooge for developers.

There’s another factor, too: the constant entry of new people into the political process from the anti-development side, people who don’t necessarily have knowledge of the anti-development battles that preceded their involvement. Ten years ago, after more than 25 years of anti-development politics (and policies, many good, to control growth), the new group in town was the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. SMCLC, acting as if no one had ever noticed traffic before, came up with the RIFT initiative in 2008, but SMCLC now takes a backseat as Residocracy drives the agenda. It’s telling that the three key leaders of Residocracy—spec mansion developer Armen Melkonians, North of Montana realtor Kate Bransfeld, and Tricia Crane, who formerly directed her activism to the School District’s special education programs—did not participate in any significant way in local development politics until three or four years ago.

It’s this combination of shifting goal posts and new players, not developer money, that causes the inevitable disconnect between anti-development politicians and their original anti-development base.

Thanks for reading.

Housers, united by LUVE

So far I’ve avoided writing about Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative” (LUVE), but now that the Santa Monica City Council will be discussing its merits in a few weeks (at the council’s July 12 meeting) I’ll stop avoiding the unavoidable.

What’s most interesting to me as a political observer is how Residocracy has, with LUVE, fractured the anti-development coalition that has been so successful over the years in setting the Santa Monica political agenda. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that Council Members Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer, two of the most articulate voices skeptical of development in Santa Monica (and two of the city’s most popular politicians), are both strongly opposed to LUVE.

Both McKeown and Winterer were strong supporters of the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (RIFT), the measure that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City put on the ballot in 2008. But LUVE is quite different from RIFT.

RIFT only limited commercial development, which put RIFT squarely in the mainstream of anti-development politics in Santa Monica going back to 1981 when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) first took power in Santa Monica and the City became, to borrow from historian William Fulton (The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to challenge the Los Angeles growth machine. In fact, there were many of us who opposed RIFT only because of its bringing ballot box government into the planning process, not because of its goal of reducing commercial (particularly office) development.

While it is true that during the ’80s SMRR-dominated city councils enacted laws making it harder to build housing (and that during that time little housing was built), paradoxically the purpose of the laws was to save housing. The idea was to preserve existing apartments by making it more difficult and less profitable to tear them down to build condominiums. When the City was sued on the basis that these impediments to building housing violated state law, and lost, the City’s response was brilliant: it maintained, even strengthened, the obstacles to building in residential districts, but satisfied state law by making it easier to build housing in commercial districts (particularly downtown).

I well remember in the mid-’90s, when the City Council was considering the new downtown zoning, listening, at a meeting of the Ocean Park Community Organization, to SMRR leader Dennis Zane try to persuade the late anti-development leader Laurel Roennau why it was good to build housing downtown. (The strategy of protecting neighborhoods by focusing development in commercial zones later became the organizing principle for the LUCE updates to Santa Monica’s general plan.)

Indeed, housing, particularly affordable housing, has always been central to SMRR’s agenda, and has always been popular with Santa Monica voters. When SMRR first challenged the growth machine in the ’80s, one of its goals was to require office developers to pay for affordable housing. In 1990 voters passed Measure R, which requires that 30% of the housing in the city be affordable to low and moderate income households. In 1999 Santa Monica became one of the few cities where a majority of voters approved the building of affordable housing.

The big battles over development since the ’80s have been about commercial development, not housing. There was the Civic Center Plan, which went to the ballot in 1994, and where most of the controversy concerned the expansion of RAND’s offices and RAND’s entitlement to build 250,000 square feet of spec offices. Then there was Target in 2001, a 100% commercial project. Now we have fights over hotels that are essentially commercial developments even though they include housing in the form of condos. Until Residocracy came along, there was little controversy (and that primarily about design issues) over the housing built in Santa Monica since the new zoning in the ’90s, nearly all of which was built downtown.

The recent Paper Mate battle is another case in point: the problem with the project was its adding hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices. At the council meeting where the project was approved, Ted Winterer made a motion to approve it if the developer turned another (the fourth) of the project’s five buildings into housing; Tony Vazquez seconded the motion. If the developer had jumped up and said Yes!, the outcome could have been different. The project might have passed on a 6-1 vote; if so, SMRR would have been less likely to have supported Residocracy’s referendum to overturn the approval. (The vote might even have been 7-0; although McKeown had not said that he would have accepted the total size of the project, he, along with other many other opponents of the project, such as Zane, had said emphatically that what he wanted at the site was housing, not more offices.)

The proponents of LUVE know that they have a problem politically with the housing issue. In their statements and writings in support, they deny that LUVE would prevent housing from being built, and claim that LUVE would protect existing housing. The measure itself is drafted to present the illusion that it supports housing development: it exempts from the 32-foot height limit 100% affordable housing projects (but only up to 50 units, and with the demise of redevelopment it’s almost impossible to build 100% affordable projects anyway), and 77 properties identified as suitable sites for housing in the City’s general plan (but only up to a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 2.5, which would likely mean that a landowner or developer would instead opt for a by-right commercial development flying under the 32-foot limit).

Given this history, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this break between Residocracy, whose leaders have made clear their belief that Santa Monica does not need more housing, and others who are skeptical about growth, but who nonetheless know that we need to house the next generation. They read the papers, and nearly everyday there’s an article about California’s housing crisis.

Although I often quote the Freud phrase, “the narcissism of small differences,” to explain how people largely in agreement can nonetheless have bitter disputes over the iota’s of their disagreements, it’s dismayed me that in Santa Monica people who largely share the same communal values nonetheless continually find themselves in noisy and acrimonious disputes when it comes to development. (And I’ll include myself.)

But as I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that “housers” in Santa Monica have largely united against LUVE. It’s like the Hillary/Bernie fight. At times bitter, but as Paul Begala said, “nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.”

Thanks for reading.

Riel Politics, Part 4: Getting to $710,000

One question people keeping asking about the firing of Elizabeth Riel is why the City Council agreed to pay so much to settle her claim: $710,000, more than four times what would have been her annual salary. Don’t expect a definitive answer, since the council can make decisions about litigation in closed session, but the record gives a reasonable basis for trying to understand what the thinking was.

While the cost of litigation and similar factors can have an impact on settlement negotiations, given that the settlement would undoubtedly be embarrassing, which it was, it’s likely that the City agreed to pay Riel all that money only because her case was strong and a verdict could have cost far more that $710,000. No doubt the issue was punitive damages. Riel’s claim was for wrongful termination based on her being fired in violation of her First Amendment rights. That would be a violation of public policy, and terminating a job in violation of public policy, or in any way violating an employee’s constitutional rights, can leave the employer at risk of paying substantial punitive damages.

City Council and its lawyers didn’t need to guess whether Riel had a good case. Federal District Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell made that abundantly clear in her ruling in September 2014 denying the City’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint. Judge O’Connell acknowledged that government employers may in appropriate circumstances limit employees’ First Amendment rights, but in explaining what the standards were for keeping politics out of public employment she in effect told the City that its defenses were limited.

Public employees routinely give up First Amendment rights; consider the Hatch Act at the federal level. But there have been many cases involving the First Amendment rights of public employees, as it’s not a small matter to give up those rights. Legal standards have developed out of these cases, and Judge O’Connell reviewed those standards in her ruling.

Judge O’Connell held that Riel, as plaintiff, would first have to prove three things: that she suffered an adverse employment action; that she had engaged in constitutionally protected speech; and that her protected speech motivated the adverse employment action. Once Riel would have proved these three factors (which would, in fact, be easy for her to do), she would establish a prima facie case for wrongful termination. At that point the burden of proof would shift to the City, which would have to prove that its legitimate administrative interests outweighed Riel’s First Amendment rights.

In other words, there’s a balancing test, in fact one so well established that it has a name: the Pickering test. According to Judge O’Connell, the “balancing test recognizes that government entities have broader discretion to restrict a public employee’s speech than a citizen’s; nevertheless, any restrictions must be directed at speech that has some potential to affect the entity’s operations.” (Internal quotation marks, some punctuation, and citations omitted.) The public employer, however, cannot simply declare that its administrative interests outweigh the employee’s rights: the administrative interests at stake cannot be speculative. This is where Santa Monica got into trouble in the Riel case.

To step back for a moment, the job Riel was hired for, communications director in the City Manager’s office, requires interfacing directly with all the elected members of the City Council. It is a politically sensitive job, and the City should be able to require whoever holds the job to stay out of local politics. (One way we know this is that when Councilmember Kevin McKeown, whose campaign for reelection Riel had worked on in 2006, heard from City Manager Rod Gould that Gould had hired Riel, he immediately told Gould that he still had Riel’s photograph on his website from the 2006 campaign. McKeown asked Gould whether he should remove it; McKeown quite properly did not want anyone to think that Riel was partisan.)

So you ask, if the job was politically sensitive, why didn’t the City take the case to trial to show that, and to argue that Riel should have been disqualified because of her past partisanship? The answer to that question is also in Judge O’Connell’s ruling. Even if the job required political neutrality, the judge emphasized that the City still had the burden to prove, with evidence, that Riel herself couldn’t do the job: “[t]he allegation that [Riel] would not support, or at least would appear unable to support, the City’s leadership and management is speculative.” Riel had assured Gould that she could do the job; he couldn’t simply declare that she couldn’t.

Perhaps if when the City had advertised the job the notice had specifically stated that applicants had to be non-partisan, and had spelled out the reasons why, then the City would have been able to prevail. But the City hadn’t done that. Riel, who, based on her deposition testimony, no longer considered herself to be political (it had been six years since she had been politically active in Santa Monica), applied for the job and got it on her merits. Establishing criteria for a job in advance and summarily firing someone before she could prove herself are two different things.

I can only assume that after reviewing the evidence unearthed during the discovery phase that followed Judge O’Connell’s ruling (i.e., the emails and the deposition testimony), the City’s lawyers concluded that they could not prove that Gould when he fired Riel had real evidence that she could not do the job, and advised the City to make the best deal it could.

And that’s how one can get to $710,000.

Thanks for reading.

Ideas, Values and Experience: Not a Bad Combination

It has been a few weeks since I’ve written on this blog. I was on vacation: back east for two family events spread out over two weekends. Both events were joyful, but in different ways. The first was joyful prospectively—Memorial Day weekend my niece graduated from Bard College. Everything there was about the future. The event the following weekend was joyful, but retrospectively. It was a celebration in Pittsburgh of the life of my wife’s mother, who died in March. We call these events memorials, because they are about memory and the past, but in this case the memories were of a former future that was very much fulfilled.

Between the weekend events I spent the week in New York City. So, in the span of 10 days my travels took me from small town America (Bard is located on the Hudson River 100 miles north of New York City), to New York, America’s greatest metropolis, and then to Pittsburgh, a midsized former industrial city that’s been remaking itself for a few decades as a center for higher education, research and healthcare.

Here’s a picture of downtown Red Hook, the village near Bard where my niece lived as a student.

Red Hook, New York

Red Hook, New York

And here’s Manhattan, as seen from the new state park on the East River shore in Long Island City, Queens.

Manhattan from Long Island City

Manhattan from Long Island City

Here’s Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh, from across the Monongahela River

None of these places look like Santa Monica. Few places do. It’s funny how people here often either express fear or hope that Santa Monica is going to become something it isn’t or change from something it’s never been to something it will never be when it would take an awful lot of change to make Santa Monica something fundamentally different from what it is.

• • •

I may have taken a vacation, but Santa Monica news didn’t. The big news was the hiring of Rick Cole to be Santa Monica’s new city manager. I was surprised and thrilled. The surprise mostly had to do with the apparent unanimity among the City Council members over the choice of Cole, in particular the enthusiasm that emanated from both Mayor Kevin McKown and his immediate predecessor as mayor, Pam O’Connor. The conventional wisdom is that the two of them “couldn’t agree on lunch” (to borrow Abbie Hoffman’s explanation for why the Chicago Seven could never have conspired to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention), yet they both seem more than happy with the hiring of Cole.

But that just goes to show how conventional one’s wisdom, including my own, can be, which brings me to the “thrilled” part. Sure, we might, and McKeown and O’Connor themselves might, focus on dramatic disputes over what are in the big scheme of things small differences, but that doesn’t mean that both of them can’t appreciate the manifest talent and abilities of a Rick Cole.

What’s truly remarkable (but I don’t want to call it surprising) about the decision to hire Cole is that the council members must know that they are getting someone who has ideas, and ideas that go beyond balancing budgets and negotiating contracts. In Santa Monica, city councilmembers usually like to be the idea-generators. It’s a good thing that they are open to someone who has that vision thing.

What are those ideas? I can’t predict what Cole will come up with next, but going back to the ’80s, in Pasadena, Cole was one of those who started imagining what a post-sprawl city could and would look like. He was one of those people who didn’t believe that our civilization was inexorably doomed to take the form of freeways and shopping malls. As it happened, at the time there were people thinking the same way in Santa Monica, and the rejuvenations of the Pasadena and Santa Monica downtowns reset the thinking for the future of Southern California.

At the same time, the council’s decision to hire Cole must have been made easier because his values (and as anyone who was spent even a little time with Cole will tell you, values mean a lot to him) are in sync with those of the council members.

What are those values? Simply put, and I’m basing this upon the work he has done in his career, Rick Cole cares about the well being of people. While this includes what is usually included in phrases like “livability” or “quality of life,” Cole extends his caring to those who don’t necessarily have the luxury of merely worrying about the quality of their lives. Social justice and a helping hand to those who need it have been part of Cole’s agenda wherever he has worked in government.

Along with ideas and values, Cole has a level of experience, as a city councilmember and mayor in Pasadena, as a planner, as a city manager in Azusa and Ventura, and most recently as a deputy major in Los Angeles, that isn’t matched by anyone in municipal government in (at least) Southern California.

Cole believes in the potential of government to solve problems, and it’s not surprising that Governing magazine once named him a public official of the year. This doesn’t mean, however, that Cole believes that government solves problems alone, or from the top down. Wherever Cole has worked, he has been known for not only being a great listener, and for getting members of the public to listen to each other, but also for pushing for small-scale actions that residents and volunteer groups can take themselves.

It’s refreshing to know, or to have confirmed, that the members of the Santa Monica City Council, however they may disagree about one thing or another, can agree on Rick Cole.

“Are we there yet?”

With the Santa Monica City Council’s action last week approving the new zoning ordinance, leaving only a pro forma second reading to finalize the new law, it looked like eleven long years of planning would soon come to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was finally more glare than glimmer.

Slow down. We’re not there yet. Just when you think it might be safe for Santa Monica government to spend more time and resources on something other than responding irrationally to bad traffic, the anti-development group Residocracy is contemplating, dare I say threatening, a referendum on the zoning ordinance.

That glare that looked sunny turns out to be oncoming headlights.

According to a Lookout article headlined “Santa Monica Slow-Growth Groups look to Public Vote on Development Issues,” Residocracy is polling its members on whether they want to take to the street to gather signatures to overturn the new zoning law, and the group’s founder Armen Melkonians expects they will say yes. (Who’s going to say no?)

Melkonians told the Lookout that the new zoning, though approved by the council’s anti-development majority, “‘still creates density.’” “‘Are we going to grow Santa Monica,’” he asked, “‘so it doubles its population?’”

Well, the answer to that question is no, or at least not until a few generations or even centuries have passed. I mean, even if Santa Monica adds all of the 4,955 housing units predicted under the LUCE by 2030, that’s only about a 10 percent increase in the city’s stock of housing units. That’s unlikely even to result in a 10 percent increase in population, however, because for decades the average number of people living in each housing unit in Santa Monica has been in decline.

Even if—as Melkonians fears—Santa Monica should add more than 4,955 units, say, twice that many, by 2030, a 20 percent increase, and even if each percentage point increase in units translated into a percentage point increase in population, well, can someone do the math? How long would it take to double the number of housing units if there was a 20 percent increase every 20 years?

In any case a while, but any significant population increase is unlikely. To give some perspective, Santa Monica’s population in 1970 was 88,289. In 2010, after decades of purported “massive overdevelopment,” it was 89,736. (I know that estimates since the 2010 census have added a few thousand more residents, but the history of those population estimates is that they get debunked when the decennial census comes around. The estimates focus on the number of housing units, but historically haven’t take into account how many young Santa Monicans leave town each year rarely to return.)

Okay, I get it—surely Melkonians was being rhetorical. But that’s what happens when you start asking people to sign petitions. If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of a local referendum campaign must be any sense of reality.

Residocracy isn’t the only group talking about going to the voters. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), Santa Monica’s more establishment, less populist, anti-development group, is considering a Version 2.0 of the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), their unsuccessful 2008 initiative. SMCLC wants to give voters a veto over “large projects.”

Based on an open letter to supporters that SMCLC leadership published last week, it does not appear, however, that SMCLC wants to join in an effort to overturn the zoning ordinance. For now at least, based on the letter it appears that SMCLC leadership is celebrating the new law, and especially the reductions in the scope of the LUCE, as the product of the anti-development majority SMCLC helped elect last November.

This makes sense, since the SMCLC leadership has long ties to councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer and they view the new zoning law as an achievement.

But indications are that SMCLC wants to bring back a new version of RIFT. SMCLC has never trusted the City Council or planning staff, and according to the letter to supporters, “large projects must be subject to a resident vote.” SMCLC’s co-chair of SMCLC, Diana Gordon, told the Lookout that the group would support a measure like RIFT. SMCLC touted the fact that RIFT garnered more than 18,000 votes in 2008. (The problem for SMCLC was that nearly 51,000 Santa Monicans voted that year.)

Of course, as Melkonians acknowledged to the Lookout, the point of having votes on developments is to scare developers away. While according to him, “only the best projects would go through,” the opposite is true. Developers and landowners will build to the lowest common denominator, slicing and dicing their projects to slip under whatever the voter-approval threshold is. It’s strange to hear a group like SMCLC, which I believe honestly wants better projects to be built, promote voter control as a way to get them.

SMCLC blames RIFT’s loss in 2008 on, as Gordon told the Lookout, its being “‘outspent in a deceptive opposition campaign.’” “Deceptive” is in the eye of the beholder, but the last several elections, notably the votes in 2014 on Measures D and LC, if anything show that money doesn’t mean much in Santa Monica elections. Beyond the merits of any thing or person on the ballot, endorsements are what count. In 2008 most of the well-respected elected officials in and around Santa Monica opposed RIFT, and SMRR was neutral.

Promoters of new anti-development referendums, whether to overturn the zoning law or to make developments subject to popular vote, would no doubt base their campaigns on their conviction that the views of voters have changed.

We’d find out.

Thanks for reading.

Reoccupying Paper Mate: there go the best laid plans

Re-using old buildings is a good thing; so why is it bad for Santa Monica that a new buyer of the Paper Mate factory is going to turn it into offices? It boils down to the three eternal verities of real estate: location, location, location. The factory sits on a crucial piece of land.

But before I get into that, if for you traffic counts are the most important metric for urban planning, stop reading now. You’re going to be happy with the new project, at least as it compared to the Hines project. Based on the EIR for the Hines project, turning 200,000 square feet of old factory into offices will generate (by 2030) approximately 1,900 car trips a day; the final Hines project was projected to generate 6,700.

No one, however, is going to notice the difference. There’s already about 2,000,000 square feet of commercial development in the immediate area and the 26th Street freeway ramps attract traffic from the eastern portion of Santa Monica and down into Venice and Marina del Rey. The existing traffic counts on Olympic and 26th Street are in the tens of thousands without Paper Mate.

Further, nearly half of the Hines project was going to be housing. Very little of the traffic associated with new residents would have been added to the afternoon outbound commuter traffic that drives us Santa Monicans crazy. With respect to commuters, you’re talking about a difference of 200,000 square feet of commercial development between the Hines project and the new one. Santa Monica has more than 10 million square feet of offices.

Moreover, Hines was going to pay for mitigation measures at many affected intersections. The new owners won’t need to do that because they have avoided anything that would subject their project to discretionary development review (although employers in the new project will have to implement some traffic demand management (TDM) procedures).

So, no surprise, traffic around 26th and Olympic will be miserable for a long time. What are we losing that was in the old project? (And, yes, I know, the old project could have been better.)

It’s hard to prove a negative—that what might have been would have been better than what we’re getting. There is also, the question of metrics: many Santa Monicans couldn’t care less about what we might have lost. They already have their jobs, or retirements, and housing, and they don’t care what happens to the old industrial areas that they have no reason to enter anyway. People who might have lived on the Paper Mate site won’t be heard from. (Some in the SMRR leadership will still wring their hands about the jobs/housing imbalance, but what’s it to them? Potential residents don’t vote.)

But there was a reason that people like Kevin McKeown pooh-poohed the idea that Hines would “walk away,” or that Diana Gordon, of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, assured us that Hines was “posturing” when the developer said it could reoccupy the factory. (This reminds me of the last big development battle in Santa Monica prior to Hines—over the downtown Target in 2001. Back then traffic-fearing residents killed what would have been one of the country’s first City Targets, but told us Target would be back with a plan to build somewhere else. Fourteen years later people are still driving outside of the city to buy a toaster, and who is it who complains loudest that there’s nothing in downtown that serves residents?)

But back to Paper Mate. Everyone who thought seriously about what should be built across the street from Bergamot Station (and I guess that includes McKeown and Gordon) knew that the old factory should be replaced with a development that, using the language the City used to express the public purposes of the project, created “a well-designed and financially feasible gateway project containing a complete community.”

We’re not getting that. Although it’s possible that people might be able to walk through the project (although the current drawings indicate that the site will be fenced in), and it’s possible that the City could build a sidewalk along the north side of Olympic connecting 26th and Stewart, there’s not going to be any plaza making the corner a gateway between the station and a new, active district. There won’t be any vehicles passing through the site either: one of the most beneficial aspects of the old project was the introduction of a street grid, as shown in this map, much of which was dependent on cutting streets through the Paper Mate superblock. A grid allows local traffic to be dispersed, taking pressure away from crowded arterials.

Map showing future streets planned for area in and around Paper Mate site

Map showing future streets planned for area in and around the Paper Mate site

But the biggest negative impact is that without the new streets, the LUCE and the Bergamot Area Plan, for most of the old industrial areas, are dead.

To understand why that’s bad, think about what LUCE is, or was. In 2004 Santa Monica began to update its land use and circulation plans to control inevitable pressures for growth. After six years of conscientious effort, the City adopted a well-coordinated plan to direct growth to designated areas (downtown, the old industrial areas, and boulevards) where it would have the least impact on residents. The LUCE is the plan that critics of development say Santa Monica doesn’t have. Turning the Paper Mate site into a gateway was crucial. Location, location, location.

Those development pressures haven’t gone away. Now, however, after the Hines debacle, if you’re a developer with land in the old industrial areas, or along the boulevards, why propose building anything with public amenities, anything approaching a “complete community,” with housing and new streets, anything that achieves the goals of the LUCE, when you can make plenty of money repurposing an old warehouse or factory, or building a 32-foot high retail box?

Thanks for reading.