Election analysis: LV lost big, bigger than you think

I haven’t written here for a while. It’s easy for a little hiatus to become a long vacation, especially over the holidays, and especially, if you write a column about local news, when national news is all consuming. Yet given a national election where the electorate divided along the spectrum from urban to rural, has it ever been more evident that “all politics is local?”

Here in Santa Monica the November results are still resonating. The sensitivities of the losers of the election over Measure LV are raw, as evidenced by Tricia Crane, one of the authors of LV. Last week Crane, who is active in both Residocracy and Northeast Neighbors, criticized City Manager Rick Cole for identifying in an email “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development” as “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development.”

As reported in the Lookout News, Crane objected to Cole’s characterization of longtime vocal critics as longtime vocal critics because, “As one who believes that democracy depends upon the free exchange of information and ideas, I find the label ‘longtime vocal critics’ to be troubling.” This coming from someone who personally and through her organization has never found it troubling to call anyone who supports building anything in Santa Monica to be, if a politician, corrupt and, if not a politician, a tool of developers.

But wait, there’s more. Crane then told the Lookout that, “Measure LV was supported by 45 percent of Santa Monica voters.” This, as anyone who has studied the election results knows, is false. While LV received the votes of 45% of those voters who voted on the measure, a trouncing in and of itself, about 17% of Santa Monica voters did not vote on LV. As a result, far fewer than 45% of Santa Monica voters supported LV.

The numbers? The total number of ballots cast in Santa Monica in November was 51,662. The number of Yes votes for LV was 19,786. Divide the latter by the former and you get 38.3%. Yes, I know, only the votes cast for or against a measure count when it comes to victory or defeat, but consider the rhetoric that we’ve heard from the anti-development crowd over the years, about how they are the residents, and about how unhappy the residents are. Given that that’s been their mantra, and that’s why they put LV on the ballot, isn’t it their burden to show that that is true? (If you want to review the numbers yourself, click here to access a PDF of all the Santa Monica November results.)

To repeat: only 38.3% of Santa Monica voters supported LV. (By the way, the figures for RIFT in 2008 were about the same.)

About now LV supporters will tell you LV lost because of the money developers spent against it, but go ask the aviation industry whether money wins elections in Santa Monica.

Getting back to the results, there were only two precincts in the city where LV won, but even in those precincts (which are on the eastern edge of the city between Wilshire and Montana) the Yes vote was less than 50% of the total number of ballots cast.

What about self-appointed neighborhood associations that supported LV? They didn’t reflect their residents. Two of the most anti-LV neighborhoods were North of Montana, the home of historically anti-development NOMA and the base for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), and the neighborhood between Wilshire and Montana west of 20th Street, the home of the WilMont Neighborhood Coalition. LV lost also in Sunset Park.

But the LV numbers tell only half the story. Any measure will get a certain number of votes just for being on the ballot, particularly one that promises to solve traffic congestion. Thirty-eight percent of Santa Monica voters voted for LV, but how many are truly up in arms about development?

We received an answer to that question in November, courtesy of Residocracy’s founder, spec-mansion developer Armen Melkonians. Melkonians ran for City Council on a hard anti-development platform. In past elections most serious candidates running on an anti-development platform (and all of them who have won election) have run with the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Melkonians, however, was an anti-development candidate who ran a strong campaign without a SMRR endorsement. Not only that, but (future write-in candidate) Phil Brock cleared the decks for Melkonians by not filing papers to run for council, and SMRR left an open seat by not endorsing incumbent Terry O’Day.

How did Melkonians do? He received 12,603 votes. Divide that number by 51,662, the total number of voters, and Melkonians’ tally was 24.4%. Meaning that not even a quarter of Santa Monica voters were angry enough about development to pay attention to local politics and then vote for the candidate who channeled that anger.

That doesn’t mean government shouldn’t continue to regulate development. Government regulates lots of businesses and industries. But we shouldn’t let the most extreme “vocal critics” set the agenda and control the debate.

These election results are, by the way, consistent with data from the City’s surveys over the years about the attitudes of residents. Most are happy to live in Santa Monica, and when asked (open-ended and unprompted) to name issues that concern them, only about a third mention traffic (and many fewer mention development).

Yet we have a political class that runs for cover whenever Residocracy or SMCLC say they speak for the residents.

Thanks for reading.

When the sky isn’t falling

I’ve been mulling over an article I read in the Daily Press a couple of weeks ago. The article was about how the owner of Cars with Class, the classic car dealership in a storefront in the 1100 block of Wilshire, feared that he would have to close his business because the property had sold for $16 million, and he expected his rent would be raised to beyond what he could afford.

There are quite a few businesses I frequent near Cars with Class and I have often walked by and admired the merchandise—beautiful cars. If Grant Woods, the owner, does lose his lease, I’ll be sorry—not only for him, but also because Santa Monica will lose an interesting storefront.

IMG_2697

The showroom at Cars with Class

To be honest, though, it’s not worrying about Cars with Class that has kept me thinking about the article. Instead, there is a quote from Mr. Woods at the end of the piece that I found curious. Speaking to the reporter, Mr. Woods connects the possibility of losing his lease to the recent closure of another store in the area, J & T European Gourmet Food. J & T was famous for its Polish sausages and other meats and imported foods, and I often was a customer. I heartily agree with something Mr. Woods said, namely that “there are going to be a lot of people who miss it.”

But then Mr. Woods said something that was, as I said, curious. He said, “That’s the changing demographics we face.”

Changing demographics. Hmmm. What I found curious was, does anyone believe that the demographics of the customers at Cars with Class were the same as those of the customers of J & T? I’ve been in J & T a lot, and I don’t recall too many customers who looked like they were going to cross the street to buy a vintage Corvette or Jaguar.

This isn’t to say that the demographics of Santa Monica aren’t changing. They are. (In fact, the more people try to keep Santa Monica physically the same, the more its demographics change, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

But Mr. Woods’ explanation for why J & T moved and why he might have to move—“changing demographics”—exemplified a typical reaction these days to change no matter how routine. Maybe this has always been the case, but today it seems that everyone wants to explain every “micro” change, such as a business losing its lease, by placing it in the context of big, “macro” changes, like “demographics.” Call it creeping generalization leading to panic.

It’s like Chicken Little has become our national bird.

Businesses go out of business every day. The stretch of Wilshire from Lincoln to say, 17th Street, has dozens of bustling businesses of all kinds. The other businesses in J & T’s old building are still there. Put it another way: shouldn’t we expect that some properties are going to turn over each year?

IMG_2704

The building where J & T used to be; in the store third from the left.

There are other examples, too, in Santa Monica these days. Take the use of the Ellis Act to evict rent-controlled tenants. Every year some property owners use the Ellis Act to get out of the apartment-renting business. To some people concerned about gentrification, this has created a crisis. But is that the case?

First, let’s be clear—whether it’s a tenant losing an apartment today or a homeowner being foreclosed upon in 2008, it’s terrible to be displaced. It’s also unfortunate in a place like Santa Monica to lose old housing stock, which is typically in the form of fairly dense apartments, and for it to be replaced by either fewer units or even single-family homes. None of this is good, and we need policies that don’t make evictions easy and that provide evicted tenants with generous assistance with relocation, etc. We also need to build more apartments that displaced tenants can move to.

But in our society, where nearly all housing is privately owned, it’s not realistic that turnover can be stopped entirely. According to the most recent Housing Element of the City’s general plan Santa Monica in 2010 had 39,127 multi-family residential units, most of which were built before 1980. They are an unbelievably valuable housing resource, home to most of Santa Monica’s population, representing generations of investment by thousands of property owners, all of whom have their own financial goals and make their own decisions to achieve them. The tenants of 27,542 apartments are protected by rent control, yes, but most Santa Monica apartments were built with “sticks and stucco.” Is it realistic to believe that none will be replaced over time or in any given year?

Are we in an Ellis crisis? Again, that’s what some people say, but Ellis activity is down, way down. Here’s a graph from the Rent Control Board’s most recent (2015) annual report, showing Ellis activity from 1986 to 2015:

Fig 20 2015 Rent Board Rpt

The graph shows that other than the recession years of the mid-’90s, and one year (2010) that reflected the Great Recession, we are at an all-time low in Ellis activity. Fewer than 50 units in each of the past four years, out of nearly 28,000 rent-controlled units, have been removed under Ellis (and almost as many units previously Ellised were returned to rent-controlled status). All this at a time of booming investment in the building of apartments: the only conclusion to draw is that the City’s policies have successfully tamed Ellising (and steered real estate investment to commercial zones), but that, yes, no policy can be 100 percent effective.

This “sky is falling” syndrome has even infected Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s cool and calm City Manager. Recently, after some bad traffic days mostly associated with Pier Concerts and the street grid needing to “learn” to accommodate more pedestrians because of the success of the Expo line (i.e., good things), Mr. Cole wrote a blog about downtown Santa Monica traffic that was like a full-blown panic attack: “Our streets are jammed.” “We finally hit the tipping point.”

Come on. The tipping point to what? At least since the ’50s on big beach days Santa Monica has been jammed.

Beach_parking_on_July_17_1955_Santa_Monica_Calif

Beach parking in July 1955; courtesy Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Ours is the most accessible beach for more people than the population of Pennsylvania. That beach defines who we are, who we have always been, and who we will be forever. I appreciate that City Manager Cole may have wanted to use his blog to list all the creative things the City is doing to deal with transportation, but our beautiful sky is where it’s always been.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica Airport: Going environmental

When it comes to the Santa Monica Airport (SMO), what a difference a few years, a lot of community action, and a decisive election have made. Four years ago, in the aftermath of losing its battle with the FAA over large jets, the City of Santa Monica was gun shy about the airport. It initiated a “Visioning Process” for the airport that ended up envisioning nearly everything that might happen at SMO except the vision that most residents concerned about the airport wanted: shutting it down.

Fast forward. Two months ago the City Council listed closing SMO as one of the three major priorities for the City. Last week the City took out full-page advertisements and created a website designed to mobilize community action against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the purpose of doing that. Tomorrow night, the council will act on recommendations from staff to start a process to curtail environmental impacts of airport operations until it can be closed.

All of this is in the context of continuing litigation to establish or confirm the City’s right to close all or part of the airport. There are two cases. The City initiated one against the FAA in 2013 to have the courts declare that the City now has the right to close the whole airport. (That litigation is tied up in a procedural appeal in the Ninth Circuit.) Airport interests brought the other case—it’s a FAA administrative proceeding seeking to extend the City’s obligation to operate the airport under a contract with the FAA from 2014 to 2023. (In that case, the FAA was supposed to give its decision months ago, but has for the third time delayed the decision.)

A city government that was not long ago trying to rationalize every problem SMO creates is now throwing every argument and strategy it can at the FAA to close the airport. It’s particularly notable that the City is working in concert with the two U.S. representatives, Ted Lieu and Karen Bass, whose constituents are affected most by the airport; this represents a big change from a few years ago when it was hard to get the local congressional delegation interested.

It is also notable that the City is making environmental arguments against the airport that it had not made before. These arguments, which have been championed for years by Los Angeles resident Martin Rubin and his organization, Concerned Residents against Airport Pollution (C.R.A.A.P.), potentially will allow the City to make an end run around at least the strictest aspects of FAA control.

This environmental argument is mostly what tomorrow night’s hearing is about. Staff is proposing various measures, including moving to require that all fuels sold at the airport be low lead or unleaded for prop planes, or biofuels for jets; requiring that current airport lessees begin mitigation of contamination of premises they have occupied; and moving to have the City take over fuel sales. Finally, staff wants authority to begin developing plans for a cap on total emissions generated by the Airport, something that could ultimately provide overall limits on airport operations.

Of course, the goal is not to operate a cleaner airport, but to close it and build a park. But making the airport operate more cleanly not only has intrinsic benefits, for so long as the airport is operating, but also increases pressure on the aviation businesses there.

All of this is radical change from where the City was not long ago. The sea change began after the 2012 election where nearly all the candidates supported closing the airport, and obviously picked up with the 2014 election when Measure LC won handily, defeating the aviation industry’s Measure D 60% to 40%. Also, one has to credit the hiring of new City Manager Rick Cole, who is taking a much more dynamic approach to the airport and its future than did his predecessor, Rod Gould.

Tomorrow night City Council should adopt all of the staff recommendations, but it should try to go even farther. For one thing, it should have staff report back on the possibility of ending all fuel sales at the airport and what this would mean, both legally and practically. Another thing the Council should do—at least I don’t see why the City can’t do it—is to terminate all leases with flight schools. The numerous flight schools at SMO are responsible for a large proportion of takeoffs and landings, and given the residential areas around the airport, it’s a dangerous place to learn to fly. I haven’t heard of any FAA regulations that require airports to have flight schools.

Without going too deep into the controversy, there is a group of anti-airport activists who believe the City can go much further than what staff proposes—and close the airport now. It’s impossible to imagine how this could be done given that the City is engaged in ongoing litigation over what its rights are, especially given that other parties brought one of the cases against the City. Although in my opinion these activists are correct about what the City has the right to do, when they ask the question, “why are the jets still flying,” it’s as if they never heard the words “contempt of court.” Judges don’t like it when litigants go outside the process.

In law school they teach that there is no right without a remedy. With respect to SMO, the City of Santa Monica is working on establishing and creating its remedies, both in the courts and on the ground.

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.