Santa Monica and the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration

For my last post I reread parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to give me some perspective on what’s going on today in Santa Monica with anti-development politics. As perceptive as Davis was, however, it was also interesting to see, in hindsight, what he missed. For all of Davis’ insights, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of the time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Immigration hardly comes up in City of Quartz, but the year the book was published, 1990, was the highpoint of a demographic wave that started in the early ’70s, accelerated in the ’80s, and then subsided in the ’90s. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County’s then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county’s population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but also about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of county residents are directly tied to what should be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era—even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises that massive demographic change caused, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc.—you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that things will get a bit chaotic if you drop millions of mostly impoverished and poorly educated immigrants (who don’t speak English for God’s sake!) into a place that wasn’t expecting them.

It didn’t have to be this way. A century ago it was the nightmare of the Lower Eastside and similar places that led to demands to reform and redesign cities, as well as massive investments in social services, infrastructure and education. But many here in southern California for different reasons wanted to act as if nothing unusual was happening. On one hand you had activists who acted as if it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate, and on the other you had conservatives who wanted to ignore the whole thing and who certainly didn’t want to spend any money to deal with the situation.

The region survived the immigration wave, and may even prosper because of the work force it left behind, but the wave left us with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the true middle class. The other is low wages for working people—a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis. The native-born children of the immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can’t find places to live. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, etc., but that model blew up in the Great Recession. Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so.

So how does this relate to Santa Monica, which, of course, is still overwhelmingly Anglo and native-born? Flash back to 1979 when young activists in SMRR joined with elderly renters, many with radical backgrounds from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to save them from eviction when in Housing Crisis I rents skyrocketed and there was huge pressure to tear down apartments to build condos and offices. This coalition brought progressive government to Santa Monica. The sad fact is that today, however, many of those same SMRR activists, now grown old themselves, instead of harking back to their youthful radicalism and idealism to join with today’s young activists to build housing for the next generation, have joined with their age and economic cohort of (some, by no means all) boomer homeowners to keep young people from moving into Santa Monica.

It’s particularly ironic because the anti-housers today use rhetoric like that which homeowners back then used against renters when renters awoke from their slumber and got involved in local politics. Yes, why should we allow the building of apartments for young “transients” without “roots” in the community? You wonder if people today who use “preserving community character” to block the building of apartments know anything about how that phrase has been so identified in the past with racial and ethnic exclusion. (Thankfully, I don’t believe they do.)

Thanks for reading.


That other specific plan

Compared to other “specific plans,” such as the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, or the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) currently being drafted, the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP), in the more than two years it has been in development, has not been controversial.

There are various reasons for this. One is that, in contrast to the DSP, the parameters for the BAP were included in the new land use and circulation elements of the general plan that City Council passed in 2010 (the LUCE). It also helps that those parameters make sense when it comes to converting an industrial district into a multifunction neighborhood surrounding a light rail stop located at a major cultural center (the Bergamot Station complex of art galleries). The BAP calls for breaking up super blocks with pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets and pathways and allows for moderate amounts of development.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day there are always issues, and when the City Council debates the BAP Tuesday evening, the council members will need to resolve certain matters. These aren’t challenges to the fundamental direction of the BAP, but they have to do with how the plan handles certain specific and important issues.

The issue that will likely engage council members most will be how to generate more affordable housing for people who work or will work in the Bergamot area. The council previously requested that planning staff study how to increase the affordability of housing to be built under the BAP. Staff responded with a report that largely defends the approach taken in the draft plan, which uses the standards in the city’s Affordable Housing Production Program (AHPP) for low-income housing, and other incentives, specifically development bonuses, to encourage developers to build workforce housing for households with incomes higher than AHPP levels but lower than the income levels needed to pay market rate rents in Santa Monica.

The council will likely want to see strategies for negotiating more affordability from developers. This is a good idea. The city is in a good position in these negotiations because the market to build housing in the region is profitable and stronger than the market to build offices.

However, because of the loss of redevelopment money, the city is in the bad position of needing to rely on developers to get affordable housing built. It is tempting to require that higher percentages of privately built units be affordable, but people don’t live in theoretical percentages of housing developments. A higher percentage of a smaller number of total units would mean fewer affordable units.

There is also a value to building market rate housing, which after all is housing that is also needed for people who work here. It’s one thing to talk about “market rate rents,” but if no one can build market-rate units, there isn’t a market for those units. If the higher end of the housing market can’t find housing, then that puts pressure on rents on existing units that might otherwise be affordable. This demand causes increases in rents throughout the city, but especially in neighborhoods near Santa Monica’s office parks, such as the Pico Neighborhood, the college streets, and Wilshire/Montana.

The council has the difficult task of finding the “sweet spot” that gives staff the power to negotiate for the highest levels of affordability, without at the same time preventing the building of housing.

Unfortunately, when the Council adopted the LUCE, it voted to limit housing to 50% or less of new development in the areas the BAP covers. Given that there are already so many jobs in the area and so little housing a better policy would have been to limit any increase in development standards above the existing commercial zoning to residential development. While the council is unlikely to amend the LUCE when passing the BAP, it might be a suitable moment to note that there’s nothing stopping a future developer who wants to build more housing to request a text amendment to the LUCE (and/or the BAP), much as the council said that downtown developers who wish to build higher than the height ultimately permitted under the DSP could ask for an amendment.

Related to this housing question is an aspect of the BAP that I can’t figure out, namely that it applies the lowest development standards in the district to the Bergamot Station area itself, i.e., the area that immediately surrounds the light rail stop on the south. The draft BAP had limited development in the whole area (which includes the area with the galleries, most of which the city owns, and two privately owned parcels on Michigan Avenue) to an FAR of 1.0. Furthermore, the BAP prohibits housing on both the city-owned and privately-owned parcels.

After pleas by Wayne Blank, who developed and operates the gallery center under lease from the city and who owns one of the Michigan Avenue parcels, the Planning Commission recommended increasing the FAR on the private parcels to 1.5. (In the rest of the BAP coverage area, maximum FARs range from 2.2 to 2.5.)

The BAP expresses the view that these low FARs protect the galleries, but I don’t see that. The BAP also calls for various enhancements to the area, including a structure for shared parking, and I wonder whether these can be paid for with the limited development allowed. (Although in a few weeks the city will receive proposals from Blank and other prospective developers of the city-owned property, and maybe I’m wrong.) We should protect the galleries by requiring that new development provide the same amount of square footage for galleries, at reduced rents, but the land nearest the station is not where we should have the lowest densities.

In the meantime, it is a waste of an opportunity to not include housing development in these areas nearest the Expo stop. In particular, the area on Michigan and near the galleries is a good location to encourage the building of student housing, given its proximity to Santa Monica College and the arts, culture and entertainment uses being developed in the area. Enrollment in the college, particularly from students outside the area, has increased over the past decades, but there never has been a strategy at the city level to develop housing for students.

Another issue that will come up Tuesday night is whether the BAP provides for parks and open space. The Recreation and Parks Commission, and some planning commissioners, argued that the plan did not do enough to secure parks, but I don’t agree. The plan has an excellent open space strategy, but one needs keep in mind that it is a plan and only a plan. What we’re dealing here with is private property, and until the owners of relevant properties want to develop, or until the city has money to buy property for parks, decisions to build parks have to wait.

At the present time the city already owns property that it has promised to turn into parks (Fisher Lumber and the Civic Auditorium parking lot). The issue is the money to build and operate the parks. In that context, the BAP articulates a good parks and open space strategy.

Thanks for reading.

Village Trailer Park: Politics and Planning and Planning Politics

It seems like a year in S. M. P. T. (Santa Monica Political Time), but it was only a week ago that the City Council approved the Village Trailer Park (VTP) project. I doubt if my saying this will make anyone on any side of the arguments over the project feel any better, but its approval in some form similar to what was approved was inevitable.

The reasons were state law and the city’s needs for the future development of the property.

Regarding the first point, it’s been often pointed out that under state law the developer, Marc Luzzatto, had the right to go out of the trailer park business. I recently read that there used to be 11 trailer parks in Santa Monica, back in the days when towing an Airstream behind the Studebaker was a popular alternative to motels for America’s on-the-road adventurers. At some point since then operating a trailer park became a not very profitable business, and the VTP is the last privately owned trailer park in Santa Monica.

However terrible it is for people to lose their homes, a misfortune that has befallen thousands of Santa Monicans who have lost their apartments over the decades, ultimately under this state law the residents of the trailer park had no rights to stay there beyond the benefits they would receive on relocation. (I have a lot of sympathy for people who lose their homes, not so much for people who use the plight of people losing their homes to stop a development they would oppose no matter what it replaced.)

Luzzatto’s right to clear the property for a new use was, however, only part of the story – the next question was, what could he then do with it? A developer’s options for developing a property are always dependent upon whatever development standards that local government imposes (or can impose). In the case of the VTP, in 2007 Luzzatto agreed to delay evicting any residents indefinitely in return for the City’s promise to negotiate a development agreement with him in good faith.

At that point, the City had to make a choice. Either it could grant Luzzatto the minimum rights to develop the property so as not to violate the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment, which would have resulted in some kind of warehouse or big box retail project, or it could grant him rights to build something more substantial that would spin off benefits the City wanted, such as new streets, and create development that the City actually could use, namely housing, and along the way generate less traffic than the warehouse or store.

While this was going on the City was developing the new Land Use and Circulation Elements of its general plan (the LUCE), and even if you have not read a word of the LUCE, a quick look at the pictures would tell you what choice the City was going to make.

And when I say “City”, I ultimately mean the City Council, because the council approved the LUCE (unanimously) and sooner or later four council members were going to agree on a plan like the one that was approved last week.

This doesn’t mean that the planning and political processes didn’t have effects – some good, some not-so-good. The most significant positive change happened when Luzzatto dropped his original plan that half of the development would be offices, and made it nearly 100% residential, with only a small amount of ground-floor offices and retail that will primarily serve the neighborhood. He also agreed to a good package of relocation benefits.

As for affordable housing, which became the flashpoint at the end, the record is mixed. By June 2012, when the Planning Commission voted to move the project (with reservations) to the council for final review, the project, which then totaled 486 units, included 109 rent-controlled apartments plus another 38 rental units that would be dedicated “affordable.” The project that was approved last week, with 377 units, also had 38 affordable units, but the difference was that in the 2012 project 11 units were affordable to extremely low-income households, while in the new project only three will be affordable to extremely low-income households. The city counts extremely low units as worth two very low units, and so the June 2012 plan delivered more affordability (and much more housing overall).

What happened in the meantime was that last summer, after the Planning Commission approved sending the project to the council, Luzzatto, responding to the outcry against the eviction of existing trailer park residents, voluntarily produced a revised plan under which instead of building all of the affordable units himself, he would donate a parcel of the property fronting Stanford Street that could first be used, indefinitely, to house ten trailers and which afterwards could be developed for affordable housing.

Luzzatto’s compromise proposal turned out to have unfortunate consequences for both him and the project; the council approved the project after the election in November but in December the newly-elected Council famously reversed the approval because in the view of four council members, two of them new, Luzzatto was no longer building enough affordable housing.

As we know, this led to litigation, and negotiations. The plan that the Council approved last week restored affordable units that Luzzatto would build, but left open the fate of the Stanford Street parcel to a future process, after up to ten trailer park residents stay in trailers there for up to ten years. Meanwhile, compared to the June 2012 plan, there will be about 100 fewer units built overall to house the many Santa Monica employees who want to live where they work.

But for Luzzatto’s gesture of trying to save 10 spaces for trailers last summer, one must conclude that the council as it existed in August 2012 would have approved something based on the June 2012 plan and the Planning Commission’s recommendations. On the long-term that would have been better for everyone, since now even the ten trailer park residents who get to stay in the Stanford parcel won’t be there indefinitely.

This is what happens when a planning process turns into a political process, but then no one said planning wasn’t political.

Thanks for reading.