Tales of two more projects

Earlier this year I wrote a post about two development projects that were staggering through the approvals process in Santa Monica. One was an apartment building on Lincoln Boulevard, replacing worn-out automobile repair shops, and the other was a hotel project, the one Frank Gehry has designed for the prominent corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Two similar projects are now plodding towards their respective destinies. One consists of two apartment buildings that are being developed together and which are considered as one project for environmental review. The other is the redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel, for which new plans were publicly released earlier this year.

The two apartment buildings will be built near the beach on land adjacent to the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels. They will replace two vacant lots—the parking lot behind Shutters with frontages on Ocean Avenue, Pico, and Vicente Terrace, and the space just south of Casa del Mar on Ocean Front Walk.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Casa del Mar Hotel.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Avenue, behind Shutters, between Pico and Vicente Terrace.

The format and programming of the apartments, designed by local architects Koning Eizenberg, conform to that of apartments that both for-profit and affordable housing developers in Santa Monica have been building for about 20 years in commercial zones. Meaning that three or four stories of apartments sit above underground parking and (in most but not all cases) ground floor retail. This model has served Santa Monica well since new zoning that encouraged housing in commercial zones was first adopted in the 1990s for downtown.

Ocean Vicente Terrace Corner

Architect’s rending of proposed apartments between Shutters and Ocean Avenue.

Given that these new apartments on vacant lots won’t displace anyone, given that they are in a busy part of town that has been intensively developed (with many buildings much larger than these) for about a century, and given that they aren’t taller than the hotels next to them (and step back to respect the shorter buildings they will face on Vicente Terrace), one would think that getting approval for these buildings would be easy. Further, the developers have tried to make the process easy on themselves, by asking for no variances from the applicable zoning other than some minor technical adjustments to take into the account the significant slope on the Ocean Avenue lot.

However, the developers are building a “Tier 2” project, which means they have to through a development review rather than an administrative approval. This entails, among other things, an expensive and time consuming environmental review which at the end of the day, for infill projects like these apartments, doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already. It’s perverse to make it harder to build Tier 2 at this scale, because the public gets more from a Tier 2 project than it does from a Tier 1. Face it, we only make approval harder and more expensive and less predictable for Tier 2 because it’s expected (but not necessarily true) that a developer will make more money from a bigger building. It’s more envy than anything else.

As for public benefits, a Tier 2 project must provide affordable units at a 50% higher rate than Tier 1, and of course, a bigger project produces more affordable units than a smaller project even without the bonus. If you want to house people, you have to build housing. (Also worth noting if you like affordable housing: the City owned the property next to Casa del Mar and sold it to the developers for more than $13 million, money that the City has put into its affordable housing fund. That amount of money was only paid because the property could be developed.)

As it happens, applications for these two apartment buildings were filed in September 2015, three years ago, and they are only now (Wednesday night, in fact) coming before the Planning Commission.

No surprise, but the apartments face neighborhood opposition. A new neighborhood group, South Avenue Residents (SOAR), which represents at least some neighbors on Vicente Terrace, filed a comment letter to the draft EIR with 67 comments. I have read many EIR comment letters, but I recommend this one in particular as a definitive catalog of first-world complaints. My favorite comment in the letter is number 42: “There are multiple dogs and cats living with their owners on Vicente Terrace. How will the developers compensate owners for special care of their animals during construction?”

This attitude of the beach dwellers is nothing new. Twenty years ago when I was on the Planning Commission there was an issue about hours of operation for Pacific Park. A woman, who later became prominent in Santa Monica’s no-growth community, testified that she had recently moved to an apartment near the Pier and she was shocked at how much noise and activity there was on Ocean Front Walk. She said that when she was moving here to the beach, she thought it was going to be like Mendocino.

Disclosure: longtime readers of mine know that when I wrote for the Santa Monica Lookout News nearby neighbors on Seaview Terrace provided plenty of grist for my mill. I’ll confess that I was in part drawn to writing about these new apartments for the opportunity to check in on what was going on in the neighborhood. It was like old times to see that once-serial project opponent Stephanie Barbanell had submitted two comment letters to the EIR. Ms. Barbanell once told neighbors that she considered her opposition to development projects (in particular, any licenses to sell alcoholic beverages) a form of conceptual art, but in recent years she’s been quiet. Good for her that she’s expressing herself again!

Ultimately, building apartments and some ground floor retail on these sites makes sense because the zoning prohibits nearly everything else. The area is under the control of Measure S, passed in 1990 to stop hotel and large restaurant development. What better to be built on these vacant lots than housing? (There may be up to three small restaurants as well.) Would the neighbors prefer an office building? (I’m sure there are tech billionaires who would love to be able to take a break and surf whenever the waves are good.) Anti-development residents in Santa Monica like to go on about how much quieter Santa Monica used to be, as a “sleepy beach town,” but what if someone wanted to bring back Pacific Ocean Park? Or even just put an amusement arcade on these lots? I’m sure the neighbors would love that.

* * *

The revised plans to remake the Miramar Hotel and add condominiums that were released last April were the third major iteration of the plans. The plans are the product of nearly 10 years of controversy. The Miramar and the proposed office and housing project at the Paper Mate factory were the major catalysts for the revival of the development wars in Santa Monica after the approval of the LUCE in 2010.

The revival of the development wars climaxed with the defeat of the Paper Mate plans in 2016. Since then, however, after the defeat of Measure LV in November 2016 and the approval of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) in the summer of 2017, there has been less heated rhetoric and fewer political battles about development. In the meantime, the Miramar brought in a new team of developers and new architects, the internationally famous firm of Cesar and Rafael Pelli.

The new team appears, with their new plans, to be committed to not igniting another conflagration. They have been more communicative with nearby residents and other locals than the earlier development team. Most important, the new plans fit inside the envelope for the site that the DCP provides. Previous plans required substantial changes to the existing land use parameters.

While the plan includes 60 condominiums, which are controversial in Santa Monica because residents who live in houses worth millions of dollars don’t like to think of their sleepy beach town as a place where rich people live, it also provides for 30 units of affordable housing. Again, as with the beach apartments, while it’s true that rich people, including dreaded Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks looking for new pieds-à-terre, will now have new housing options near the beach, so will more poor and working-class people.

If the plan were going through the approval process now, during the lull in the development wars and not too long after City Council adopted the DCP, I suspect that it would fare well. Unfortunately for the plan, however, it’s now in environmental review jail—an EIR is being written (and yes, for a project this big an EIR is appropriate), and that typically takes more than a year. Then the plan will run a gauntlet of approvals: Landmarks Commission, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, City Council and Coastal Commission. It will be at least a couple more years before the plan might win final approval.

Time is the enemy of all plans because time is the enemy of certainty. The Miramar’s developers crafted their first plan (one I didn’t think was very good) in consultation with the City’s planning staff. At a City Council hearing, the plan was shot down because it blocked too many views. The council advised the developers to come back with a tall skinny building, to preserve more views. Which the developers did (with another not-very-good plan), but by then the council had forgotten what it had said about a tall tower, and that plan went nowhere.

It was after that debacle that the Miramar brought in its new team. They waited out the DCP process to see what it would allow them to build. Now they have given us the new plan, which is, by the way, quite good.

But in two years, who knows that the City will be telling them they can build.

Thanks for reading.

More on the City Council election: why two attack campaigns failed

After my posts last week, I don’t have too much more to say about the City Council election, but I do want to write about at the least one thing: the failure of attack advertising.

But first—there’s nothing wrong with negative campaigning. Candidates want to let voters know that their ideas, values and, yes, their characters are better than the ideas, etc., of their opponents. To do that it’s okay for candidates to say why they believe that the ideas, etc., of their opponents are not-so-good.

Negative campaigning can be untruthful or unfair, but that goes for positive campaigning, too. Civility is good, sure, but exaggeration is part of politics, and it would be a danger to democracy to elevate civility over robust debate. My purpose in this post is not to moralize about negative campaigning, but to analyze the effectiveness of attack campaigns in Santa Monica.

There were two significant attack campaigns in the November City Council election, both run by independent campaigns. (By campaigns I mean mail or phone campaigns, not just criticisms that candidates might make of each other at forums, etc.) The first, chronologically, was the campaign by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) against Pam O’Connor. The second was by the Miramar Hotel against Sue Himmelrich.

At my house we received five mailers from SMCLC and only one was positive about the three candidates (Kevin McKeown, Richard McKinnon and Himmelrich) that SMCLC supported. The other four were hits on O’Connor.

SMCLC’s hits on O’Connor were hard. The mailers had headlines like “Pam O’Connor has NEVER voted against a large development in 20 years on City Council,” “Pam O’Connor is funded by Developers,” “Pam O’Connor rewarded a developer with millions for destroying our homes” (words attributed to elderly and disabled residents of the Village Trailer Park), “O’Connor approved Expo line at street level in Santa Monica, which will worsen our already terrible traffic,” or “700 new pack-and-stack apartment units – APPROVED.”

When I received the mailers I thought they would be effective. They pushed a lot of buttons. As it happened, however, although we’ll never know if SMCLC’s attacks had marginal impact, they didn’t stop O’Connor from winning reelection. I have two theories why.

One is that the attacks were over-the-top. The mailers ranged from misleading to scurrilous to nutty. Blame O’Connor for “pack-and-stack” apartments? Putting aside that unflattering description, nearly all apartments built in Santa Monica for 20 years fall under zoning that was passed 20 years ago (I’m not even sure O’Connor was yet on the council) to satisfy a court judgment against the City requiring it to allow housing to be built; in response City Council enacted an ordinance that encouraged housing development in downtown instead of neighborhoods, and where it could replace traffic-generating commercial development. Blame O’Connor for Expo at ground level? That was a decision that the council made to avoid having a giant viaduct over downtown and a station at Fourth and Colorado 35 feet in the air. O’Connor takes money from developers? Attacks on a candidate’s campaign funding are rarely successful—voters know money is part of politics. O’Connor is personally responsible for evicting tenants from the Village Trailer Park? That’s where the campaign finally jumped the shark.

I doubt that SMCLC is looking for advice from me, but the attacks might have had more credibility if SMCLC had focused on one or two particular votes that they didn’t like. It’s better to pound on one point rather than take a scattershot approach; by the time I received the fourth mailer, the campaign looked kooky. Which leads to my second theory why the attacks didn’t work, namely that O’Connor did the smart thing: she ignored them.

Ignoring an attack would likewise have been a good policy for the Miramar Hotel, which overreacted to a brilliant piece of campaign mail that Himmelrich’s campaign sent out in late October. This was her four-page “Miramar ’Zilla” piece that attacked the Miramar’s plans for redevelopment, a mailer that put Himmelrich in the forefront of a crowded field of candidates running on anti-development platforms.

The Miramar responded with a massive counterattack in the last week of the campaign, accusing Himmelrich and her husband of multiple campaign indiscretions and various hypocrisies. If you’ve read my posts last week, you know that I don’t believe that everything Himmelrich did (or had done for her) to win the election was “transparent,” but like SMCLC’s charges about developer contributions to O’Connor’s campaign, these are the kinds of attacks that voters tune out. The Miramar people may have been righteously angry about the ’Zilla attack, but in retrospect the mailer warranted an indignant press release, not Armageddon.

In response to the attacks, Himmelrich did the exact opposite of O’Connor—she counterattacked in force, mostly with robo-calls from people defending her. In her case, however, a vehement response made sense. While there was some risk of amplifying the Miramar’s charges, Himmelrich by counterattacking was able to reiterate and reinforce her original attack on the Miramar’s project. By depicting herself as a victim of corporate attacks she further strengthened her anti-development credentials.

So what’s the takeaway? Probably not much. In hindsight, O’Connor with her long history in the community and Himmelrich with her SMRR endorsement seem destined to win. But Santa Monicans who like their politics to be civil can take satisfaction in the fact that two virulently negative independent campaigns didn’t work.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Elevated Thinking?

Last week I wrote a post about the political conflict over the issue of the height in downtown Santa Monica, focusing on the fight between the Miramar and Huntley Hotels and the motion three councilmembers brought forward to table consideration of projects taller than 84 feet until after the adoption of the Downtown Specific Plan.

But I didn’t say much about the issue itself. As I have written before, I am still making up my mind about height. I’d like to explain why I am still undecided.

Thirty years ago Santa Monica made a momentous decision to restrict heights. Since the days of the Arcadia Hotel Santa Monicans had built large buildings on the beach; today, when people profess nostalgia for an unchanging “sleepy beach town,” it’s important to recall that the decision to restrict heights represented big change.

I was not involved in politics then, but it’s a decision that I’ve always thought was a good one. The city made it in response to a series of towers, both downtown and in Ocean Park, that were built in the ’60s and ’70s. For the most part these towers were unattractive and projected an exclusionary gestalt offensive to many. The decision to lower heights also had the side benefit of spreading the demand for development around downtown Santa Monica to more properties, helping to create the more balanced downtown that we now have.

My own views in general about skyscrapers for a long time have been that other than in exceptional locations the best form for most urban centers was the form that cities took before elevators – capping out at five or six stories, with courtyards and good connections to the street. While I love modern architecture, I agree with the consensus that developed in the light of the writings of Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown that the modernists’ concept of the “tower in a park” had been a failure.

Then a few years ago I took a trip to Vancouver (my wife had a conference there – it wasn’t as if I was looking for a new perspective) and saw how in that beautiful city on the water they were building “skinny” high-rises, mostly for residential purposes, that worked well with their streets. I began to reconsider my position about height. But for any given place, such as downtown Santa Monica, I haven’t made up my mind. Every place is different.

What Santa Monica needs and deserves is a robust community discussion about the issue. A generation has passed since Santa Monica restricted heights, and while the momentous decisions of the past have weight, they aren’t necessarily binding on the future. Change happens. Still, the burden of proof is on the proponents of more height – they need to explain why towers today won’t create the problems that towers in the ’60s and ’70s created. At the same time, the proponents of the status quo have to give reasons for opposing height that go beyond “we decided this back then,” or “developers are greedy.”

Personally, I want to hear all sides, but I also want to see models and graphics to give an idea of what tall buildings would look like from different angles, including from the beach. I haven’t seen those yet.

Having expressed all that angst, I will venture a few thoughts about the three specific hotel/condo projects that developers have proposed.

The Miramar was the first proposed project, and being first didn’t help them or anyone else. To be fair, let me remind everyone that the Miramar’s initial proposal did not include heights much above the height of their current 12-story tower (although the design presented other problems). It was only when the City Council at the float up hearing, ironically in response to ideas from an opponent of the project, suggested that the council would be open to a taller, skinnier tower (to help preserve the views of neighbors), that the Miramar devised a taller plan.

In my view the architecture for the proposed tower was uninspired, but in any case the Miramar has had a hard row to hoe because it has neighbors on two sides. Still, the amount of building proposed for the Miramar (a floor-to-area-ratio of less than three) is not so much as to preclude a good design. Even with lot coverage of only 50%, the average height of development will be only six stories. It seems to me that with a good architect and good urban design, the Miramar should be able to come up with a plan that its neighbors (at least those with open minds) wouldn’t object to.

I suspect that if the other two projects, the hotel designed by Frank Gehry and the new hotel proposed for the site of the old Holiday Inn, had come up before the Miramar did, there would be a lot less controversy about them. Both of those projects have top-flight design architects (and that shows in the proposals), neither is in a residential neighborhood, and both make use of land that adds little to the downtown now – respectively, the parking lot at Second and Santa Monica and the godforsaken wedge of land between Colorado and the freeway.

But still these projects need to pass a fundamental question: are Santa Monicans okay today with tall towers downtown?

Thanks for reading.

 

When Hotels Collide

I suppose I should be flattered that the owners of the Miramar Hotel felt that including a seven-year-old quote from me about the Annenberg Beach House might help them in their battle royale with the Huntley Hotel, but I’ll decline the honor.

It’s not that I don’t find it ironic that Latham & Watkins, known as the toughest real estate development law firm in Southern California, has been retained to scuttle a real estate development (I even joked about this in a blog post last month), but I wish the Miramar had left my name off what is one of the most unpleasant and misbegotten political mailers in Santa Monica history.

No thanks, but I’d rather not be associated with a piece that makes the owner of the Huntley look like the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist. And surely it’s counter-productive for one developer to accuse another of greed.

But I can understand if the Miramar people are feeling a bit frustrated, because the Huntley’s consultant, Sue Burnside, has been turning Miramar opponents out in droves to public meetings, the latest being the City Council meeting Tuesday night. That was on the motion by three councilmembers to table action on any project proposing a tall building until after the adoption of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

Speaking of irony, this proposed measure, which was promoted as a means of calming the waters, caused another two or three hours of storm-tossed seas.

I was torn by the proposal. I agree with the three councilmembers proposing it (Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer and Tony Vazquez) that in an ideal world it would be better to make intellectually pure decisions about issues like height before anybody proposed a project, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and in the real world, until and unless someone proposes a tall project, we probably wouldn’t even think about the issue.

Moreover, as someone who hasn’t made up his mind about whether we should relax our 30-year-old limitations on heights, I like the idea of seeing the proposed projects first, because they provide context for the decision-making. Ted Winterer had a good point that the process could create its own momentum towards approval, but I’d risk that for the chance to see what people have in mind.

In any case, no decisions will be made until council adopts the DSP.

Politically, the crux of the issue was summarized in Kevin McKeown’s comment, after agreeing to support Gleam Davis’ motion to poll residents on their views about height, that, “I will be supporting this motion, although I think it would have been better, faster, easier and cheaper to just listen to our constituents.”

What McKeown might have said, to be more accurate, was that the council should have listened to his constituents, because the proposal highlighted the fact that the councilmembers, even the six who owe their political success to their having been endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), do not share all the same constituencies.

Look at the election last November. The two leading candidates, Ted Winterer and Terry O’Day, each polled about the same number of votes (17,604 for Winterer and 17,042 for O’Day); although SMRR (and other organizations) endorsed them both and to a great extent their support overlapped, anyone who knows anything about politics here knows that Winterer probably received five or six thousand anti-development votes and O’Day probably received about the same number from voters opposed to anti-development policies.

If you look at the 2012 election at the margin between victory and defeat, which was all about who won the contested fourth seat, the issue of constituencies is even more complicated. Tony Vazquez won the seat and he ran outside of the development/anti-development issue. He wasn’t supported by the developers’ pop-up organization, Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future, and the anti-development forces didn’t support him either – he wasn’t on the slate of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and he didn’t receive financial support from the Huntley through their pop-up organization, Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth. Indeed, the anti-development faction so suspected him of being in favor of development that they prevented him from receiving an endorsement from the SMRR membership or the Santa Monica Democratic Club, two of his natural constituencies.

Instead, Vazquez won because he was known for having been a councilmember in the ’90s and he had endorsements from SMRR, the County Democratic Party, and, crucially, Unite-HERE, the hotel workers’ union, which walked precincts for him. While land-use politics garner most of the attention and generate most of the heat in Santa Monica, they’ve rarely been decisive with the voters.

I bring this up because it might lower the frustration and anger level if people acknowledge that just because they are willing to come late at night to a City Council meeting to protest, that doesn’t mean that the councilmembers, who know who elected them, will necessarily consider them as representing anyone other than themselves.

Call it once again the difference between the real world and someone’s ideal.

Thanks for reading.

Downtown Development: The Train has Left the Station and is Arriving Soon

I left Monday night’s public meeting about downtown development standards around 9:00 and so I didn’t hear all the comments, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what I heard.

The open mic format provided a chance for people to vent, but that’s okay. No, I don’t believe that the people there who vented were particularly representative of Santa Monicans, but neither were they people who are naturally angry who can be dismissed as Tea Partiers. We’re talking normally calm and friendly folks. These are people who have good lives — they have jobs, or they’re retired, and houses or nice apartments, and they don’t usually have much to complain about.

It struck me how many of them bracketed their passionate complaints about change in Santa Monica with equally passionate declarations about how much they love it here. Many of the most emotional speakers seemed angry about being angry, as if it was infuriating to them to have to get angry in the first place.

Also, when you delve into what they were saying, you find that they’re more discerning than their blanket denunciations of development would have you expect. Since, as I discussed in my previous post, I’m in favor of more development downtown but I haven’t made up my mind about high-rises, I was pleased to hear many of the anti-development speakers say they would be okay with development up to 84 feet high so long as the same rules were applied to everyone.

And of course there were various speakers, such as Mike Feinstein and Phil Brock, who brought up important arguments that need to be made in the community discussion about whether to reverse the 30-year ban against tall towers.

Yet it’s hard to avoid a little cynicism. When I lined up to enter the meeting there was Huntley Hotel lobbyist Sue Burnside checking in those members of the “community” who she had mobilized. Ms. Burnside, who last year bragged online that on the Huntley’s behalf she had organized phony community groups, might want to try a little discretion. It’s the better part of something. (Later when the Huntley’s lawyer from Latham & Watkins spoke I wondered if her firm’s real estate department should charge double to oppose a project to compensate for the cognitive dissonance this must cause. I hope they don’t all need counseling when this is over.)

It was also hard not to be cynical about some of the homegrown commentary. There were the representatives of Santa Monica Coalition For Livable City (SMCLC) charging that city staff was in cahoots with developers to build tall towers in downtown Santa Monica. Back in 2005 SMCLC made the same claims with respect to the towers proposed for Santa Monica Place. SMCLC sued the City to get access to all the city’s emails and correspondence with the developers to show this conspiracy. They even got their legal fees paid. But SMCLC made not one email public. Evidently they found nothing to back up their allegations.

Now it’s the same thing. Staff, consultants, people who are educated and conscientious, and who are like flight attendants who have to keeping smiling no matter what their customers do or say, are nothing but pawns of developers. Staff bashing is repugnant because the staff can’t respond in kind, and unfortunately in Santa Monica they don’t get backed up by the politicians who hire them, or even by senior administrators.

Which brings me to that pounding refrain of “we need to take back our city!,” as if a few harried staff, or their devious consultants, or the venal city council members above them and even their greedy developer overlords, are responsible for bringing ten million people to Los Angeles and making them affluent enough to drive millions of cars.

I also sensed political desperation. The election in November showed that even with substantial funding (from the Huntley) an anti-development candidate cannot win without a SMRR endorsement, yet SMRR has many constituencies besides the anti-development faction, most of which support jobs and housing and other goals that require economic development.

The anti-development faction in Santa Monica politics knows that relatively few people in the city care about what happens downtown (as opposed to their neighborhoods). City Council Member Ted Winterer, a favorite of the anti-development side, recently told The Lookout that his wish list would include reversing the 2001 decision not to build a Target downtown, certainly a signal that he’s not going to let fears about traffic stop him from approving projects that are good for the city. Even Daily Press columnist Bill Bauer, usually a staunch supporter of the anti-development faction, has written in favor of both the Miramar and Gehry hotel/condo towers.

When it comes to development downtown, the anti-development speakers are trying to stop a train that has left the station (and is arriving at Fourth and Colorado in 2016).

Thanks for reading.