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.

“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.

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.”

• • •

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.

Sic transit transit center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

How to build boxes on the boulevards

You may be familiar with the honor code of the Texas state legislature, as chronicled by the late Molly Ivins: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

After reading the staff report for Wednesday’s Santa Monica Planning Commission hearing on certain proposed amendments to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica’s general plan (LUCE), I’m thinking that the Texas code is not sufficient for Santa Monica. Maybe we need to add another disqualifier:

“If you can’t ignore panicked reactions to angry residents, you don’t belong on the Planning Commission.”

After a six-year process overseen by the Planning Commission, a process that involved remarkable public involvement, the City Council unanimously approved the LUCE in 2010. Back then the LUCE was popular. Even anti-development organizations then involved in Santa Monica politics, normally skeptical of anything emanating from City Hall, approved it.

So what happened? New anti-development groups, notably Residocracy, emerged. New politicians, such as Richard McKinnon, John C. Smith, Armen Melkonians, Phil Brock, and ultimately Sue Himmelrich, none of whom had been active in the LUCE process, also emerged. They hitched their wagons to the anti-development movement.

At the same time, battles were being fought over downtown hotels, battles that didn’t involve anything in the LUCE, but which provided endless fodder for opponents of development. Poorly considered preliminary plans for the Miramar got the Huntley Hotel involved, and the Huntley became a financial and organizational resource for the new anti-development players.

Then in early 2014 the City Council approved the Hines Paper Mate project on a 4-3 vote. The Hines project followed the LUCE guidelines closely, but it was unquestionably large, and suddenly the anti-development forces had, literally, a big target. Worse, because the one big failing of the LUCE was that it allowed for too much commercial development near Bergamot Station, the Hines project would have placed a lot of jobs at a location that was already overwhelmed with commuter traffic.

After defeating the Hines project, the anti-development forces looked for more targets. They found some on the boulevards. Wednesday night the Planning Commission will consider stripping from the LUCE a few mild encouragements for building something other than retail boxes on our boulevards.

Specifically endangered are two potential “activity centers” on Wilshire, one at 14th and one at Centinela. There the LUCE would allow for small increases in development standards to encourage multiple property owners to join together to make better places for mixed residential and commercial developments by sharing parking, open spaces, etc. Pretty innocuous, really, especially since anything built under the activity center designation would be subject not only to the intensive public review of a development agreement, but also to the preparation, through a public process, of a separate area plan.

Similarly, development opponents want to eliminate, from most of the boulevards, “Tier 3” developments, which allow for more housing to be built but which require a development agreement.

The opposition to development along the boulevards from a few people, concentrated in neighborhood groups, has been fierce. The staff report includes euphemistic statements like “substantial community input has been submitted questioning the continued appropriateness of the Wilshire activity centers,” or that the LUCE’s tiers of development and development review, have “created community concern.”

“Questioning the continued appropriateness?” “Created community concern?” Now nice. But we’re not talking about a tea party—or maybe we are.

There’s a lot of anger in Santa Monica these days about development, but there’s no indication that the passion, though at times deep, is widespread. After all hubbub over Hines, the hotels, etc., leading up to the November election, turnout was abysmally low. Yes, the two candidates running for City Council who got the most votes, Kevin McKeown and Himmelrich, ran on anti-development platforms, but factors other than their anti-development support were more crucial to their victories. As it happens, neither one of them got even one-sixth of the registered voters in the city to vote for them.

No one in Santa Monica politics has a mandate and no one bestows them. Elected and appointed officials should vote according their own analysis of the facts, using their knowledge and expertise, not according to who yells loudest.

And they should respect the process. The LUCE isn’t perfect. It should be amended. The development standards in the old industrial areas should be changed so that all new development in excess of what’s there now should be residential. This would respond to the chief complaint about the Hines project, that it had too much office development and not enough housing. But if we’re going to amend LUCE, let’s have a real process, not just the Planning Commission and staff sending something to council in response to squeaky wheels.

Back in 2010 when some of us were arguing against how the LUCE encouraged office development around Bergamot, because we wanted to see more residential development, staff told us not to worry because residential development would be located on the boulevards.

Now with this possible capitulation to the anti-development side, the City might abandon the possibility of building significant housing along the boulevards. But in the “be careful what you wish for department,” the anti-development folks should consider what this would mean.

When properties on our boulevards turn over, as they surely will, if property owners build to Tier 1 standards (up to two stories, 32-feet high) to avoid discretionary review, what do you think they will build? There are two possibilities:

• Retail boxes on top of underground parking. On Wilshire, think Whole Foods or Staples.

• Or maybe two stories of offices, with a bank or brokerage on the ground floor.

If you’re concerned about traffic, what do you think generates more car trips, a bank or a store, or an apartment building?

Thanks for reading.

 

When history repeats as farce it’s not always funny

“If the slow-growth movement … has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly—in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics—a reassertion of social privilege.” —Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990).

In an attempt to remind myself of the historical context behind the anti-development politics I’ve been writing about, I went back and reread the famous 60-page chapter, called “Homegrown Revolution,” that Mike Davis wrote in City of Quartz 25 years ago about the homeowner movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Davis, if you haven’t read the book, takes no prisoners. He’s equally rough on Anglo homeowners, enriched by the rapid increase in property values of the late ’70s, who banded together to enact Prop. 13 and keep apartments (and not incidentally minorities) out of their neighborhoods, and the Growth Machine developers and their kept politicians whom the would-be “sunbelt Bolsheviks” so feared.

At a certain point Davis refers to Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” to make the point that for all their fervor, and with the notable exception of the Prop. 13 campaign, the slow-growthers were usually disorganized, like the peasants whose potential for revolution Marx dismissed. Reading this reference 25 years later I found a retrospective irony. Notwithstanding what Marx said about the peasants the most famous line in Eighteenth Brumaire is the one where he, in comparing the Emperor Napoleon and this nephew Napoleon III (Louis Bonaparte), says that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” When you compare the issues that provoked anti-development activists in the ’70s with those that fuel anti-development fires today, farce is what comes to mind.

So many people newly involved in anti-development politics in Santa Monica, and I’m thinking of many in Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, act as if they’ve discovered things that no one else knew about. Did you know that traffic is congested and that developers want to make money? What a shock!

I hate to play the old baby boomer card, but we’ve been through this before. There’s a reason that freeways don’t cut up the Santa Monica Mountains, and that was because in the ’60s Marvin Braude and others formed the Hillside Federation to stop them. There are reasons that downtown Santa Monica doesn’t look like downtown Glendale, that there are only two apartment towers on the beach in Ocean Park, and that thousands of apartments have been saved from destruction, and that’s because when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981, Santa Monica became, as described by William Fulton, another great chronicler of L.A. (in The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to confront the Southern California Growth Machine.

SMRR arose because of a real crisis, not something ginned up. The reason analysts label today’s regional housing crisis as the worst in decades is because the crisis of the late ’70s was even more dramatic. L.A. housing prices, which early in the decade were slightly lower than the national average, increased 30 to 40 percent a year, and rents exploded, too. Oh, and by the way, people complained about traffic back then, too. Locally developers had big plans to turn industrial areas into office parks, as had happened on Ocean Park Boulevard with the Douglas Aircraft site, creating many more jobs per acre, which would mean more commuters. And let’s not forget other serious problems, like homelessness and gang violence, and decaying infrastructure.

Not everything worked out—there was the matter of the approval in the ’80s of twice the office square footage predicted in Santa Monica’s 1984 land use plan—but the worst damage was averted and there were many positive achievements. I’m tempted to say that there were giants in those days, but in any case movements against genuine ills create big ideas and powerful language. The tragedy comes when those ideas and words are applied to more trivial circumstances. Then they become farcical.

That’s not to say we don’t have problems today, they’re just not the ones complainers in Santa Monica complain about. They’re still acting as if Santa Monica is a “Leave It to Beaver” suburb, when in fact it’s part of the central core of a megalopolis. Longtime residents (the only ones who are supposed to have standing to complain) have a lot to be thankful for—high property values and low, Prop. 13 taxes if they are homeowners, rent-controlled rents if they are renters, convenient access to whatever services they need, shorter commutes than average. What drives them crazy is traffic, but traffic is bad all over, it’s been bad for a long time, and it’s not necessarily getting worse. The reality today is not about how to preserve a suburb, even an industrial suburb like Santa Monica once was, but about how to make a city work.

Here’s a fact to chew on from the Housing Element of Santa Monica’s General Plan: in 2013 82.8% of all housing in the city was more than 30 years old—built before 1983. The development that the anti-development crowd should actually be complaining about took place in the era they have the most nostalgia for. But if nearly 30,000 units (of 50,000 total today) hadn’t been built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, most Santa Monicans wouldn’t have a place to live.

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