New realities and housing policy in Santa Monica

Wednesday night there will be a joint meeting of the Planning and Housing Commissions to discuss the future of Santa Monica’s housing policies. (Don’t ask me why there is a joint meeting. The commissions have a total of 13 members, all of whom should have thoughts about those policies. Anyway – expect heat, hope for light.)

Events are moving fast when it comes to housing policy. Decades of chickens, in the form of resistance to building needed housing in coastal California, including in Santa Monica, have come home to roost. A devastating shortage of housing has jacked up rents (meanwhile making homeowners rich) and created unprecedented levels of economically-caused homelessness. Finally the State of California and regional authorities are doing something about it.

I highly recommend reading the staff report for Wednesday night’s meeting. The report does primarily two things: (i) it reviews state and regional actions since 2017 designed to stop local governments from preventing housing from being built and to require them to plan for, allow, and facilitate more housing, and (ii) it presents data from the consultants hired by Santa Monica showing that extending affordable housing inclusion requirements mandated two years ago on development in downtown Santa Monica to the rest of the city would make housing development outside of downtown infeasible (as it has largely become in downtown).

As for the new limitations on local government’s control over land use, California has enacted various laws since 2017, described in the staff report, encouraging and expediting housing development. When it comes to dramatic change, however, nothing beats what happened November 7 at the regional level. Responding to dramatic action from the governor to require plans for more housing development, and concerted action by housing activists, our regional planning authority, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), made the overdue acknowledgement that the region needs a large number of new housing units, 1.3 million, and that the majority of those units need to be built, because of existing need, near concentrations of jobs and transit along the coast.

The new SCAG housing numbers, assuming they are approved by the California Department and Housing and Community Development (HCD) and survive the inevitable litigation from coastal cities, will require drastic revision of housing policies in Santa Monica if the City is going to avoid fines and other penalties. The new requirement for Santa Monica will be a net increase of about 9,000 units over eight years. To give you an idea of how dramatic this change is, over the past 24 years, the average number of new units built in Santa Monica was 217. (For more data about housing production in Santa Monica, see this post of mine from last spring.)

Still, lest anyone panic (I’m sure people are), 1,000 units per year would be only about a 2 percent annual increase in the number housing units in Santa Monica, and 9,000 units would be a less than 20 percent increase over about a decade. But the increase is overdue; from 1980 to 2018 the total number of units in Santa Monica increased only about 14 percent (from 46,393 to 52,871).  An increase to 60,000 units is nothing a city with Santa Monica’s resources can’t handle. (I won’t go into it now, because I’ve written so often about the real impacts of population growth in Santa Monica (as opposed to the mythical), but these new residents will not contribute to the traffic that results from commuters coming to Santa Monica and the Westside in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. In fact, to the extent the new residents have jobs on the Westside, they will reduce those trips.)

The rest of the staff report, including exhibits, is all about a financial analysis the City Council asked for regarding what would happen if the City extended the affordable housing requirements of the 2017 Downtown Community Plan (DCP) to the rest of the city. Why the City would consider extending the requirements is a mystery, since those DCP requirements have resulted in little housing, and virtually no affordable housing, being built downtown. (You can read more about the disaster of the DCP here.)

The reason for the analysis is, however, that there are a lot of “pseudo-housers” active in Santa Monica politics, including a large contingent in Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Yes, it’s ironic that an organization dedicated to the interests of apartment renters consistently supports the traditional antipathy of suburban homeowners against apartments. SMRR has always opposed the building of apartments unless they are deed-restricted affordable, which is another way of saying they don’t want apartments to be built, given that it’s difficult to find funding for subsidized, standalone affordable projects. SMRR is the best friend of apartment owners who want to increase rents when rent-controlled units are vacated, because SMRR fights the building of new units that would compete. The pseudo-housers like nothing more, however, than to enact laws that proclaim their “progressiveness” even while demonstrating their opposition to any change in the perfection they evidently find in Santa Monica. That’s why they are pushing an extension of the DCP requirements.

Genuine needs for genuine, not rhetorical, progress, however, are catching up to the pseudo-housers, not only because of high rents and homelessness, but also because of the broad recognition that to reduce carbon emissions it is going to be necessary to live more densely, closer to jobs and transit.

Regardless why the City decided to study extending the DCP requirements, I’m happy to report that the same consultants who too-optimistically found in 2017 that the DCP requirements would not impede housing development downtown have realistically determined that extending those requirements citywide would make nearly all housing development infeasible, especially when compared to the profits that can be made by commercial development. (I wrote about the financial advantages for commercial development in this post from 2017.)

Getting back to Santa Monica’s pseudo-housers, I can predict how they will respond to the new SCAG housing assessment of 9,000 units. About one-half of these units should, according to SCAG, be affordable to low-income households. This is undoubtedly correct (although I don’t believe SCAG has fully taken into account the impact of building new housing on the preservation of affordability in old housing). What I predict, however, is that Santa Monica’s pseudo-housers will seize on this data point and demand that all housing development in Santa Monica be 50 percent low-income affordable. Of course, this would kill private investment in housing, which is what the pseudo-housers want. (To the extent market-rate and moderate-income housing is not built, old, affordable housing stock will continue to be cannibalized and turned into higher-priced housing, but that has never bothered the pseudo-housers.)

So, with all this, where should the City go with housing policy? To me, the City should first return to prior tried-and-true policies that resulted in housing, including affordable housing, being built in Santa Monica over the past 25 years. Then the City should also build on policies, such as the new state law on additional dwelling units (ADUs), to encourage more housing. These policies would include:

• In all commercial zones, give residential housing a double FAR over commercial. This advantage for residential development resulted in around 2,000 units being built in downtown Santa Monica, and the conversion of commercial zoning to residential development means less traffic. It would also solve the “site” problem, since Santa Monica has lots of underbuilt commercially-zoned land.

• In general, increase the zoning envelope to the maximum allowed in the general plan, but at least by one story in all multi-family and commercial zones.

• Return to the moderate-income policy that existed under Measure R until a few years ago, by which a developer could build a 100 percent moderate income project without other requirements. This policy resulted in hundreds of deed-restricted moderate-income units, many of which are now occupied by Section 8 tenants, being built without a dime of public subsidy. A few years ago the pseudo-housers killed this unsubsidized moderate-income development by adding a low-income requirement.

• For the minimum of 15 percent of total units that need to be (and should be) low-income under Measure R, rely on and fund non-profit developers (such as CCSM and homeless service providers like Step Up or the People Concern) and require a small, perhaps 10 percent, inclusionary requirement on large market-rate projects (meanwhile charging a significant in-lieu fee on smaller market-rate projects).

• Look into ADU zoning that would allow ADUs big enough for families to be built in R1 zones.

• Reduce or eliminate parking requirements for housing.

But above all, dear planning and housing commissioners, follow Hippocrates. “First, do no harm.” Resist the pseudo-housers.

Thanks for reading.

Whack-a-mole housing policy

When in the summer of 2017 the Santa Monica City Council, after six years of work, adopted the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), the then architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Christopher Hawthorne, wrote an article about it. Hawthorne, after a conversation with City Manager Rick Cole, expressed guarded optimism that the plan, which Cole and the council had touted as a “housing” plan, would indeed lead to the building of more housing, for all income levels, in downtown Santa Monica.

According to Hawthorne, Cole characterized the DCP as being the result of a “grand bargain” between anti-growth and pro-housing factions in Santa Monica. Because the DCP included streamlined approvals for housing and height and density bonuses for housing development, and eliminated parking minimums, Cole was confident, based on the City’s financial analysis, that developers would build housing despite increased requirements for including affordable housing.

Hawthorne was respectful of Cole’s optimism, but the critic injected a note of skepticism in his article by including a comment from Santa Monica housing activist Jason Islas to the effect that the DCP’s high percentage requirements for affordable housing (maxing out at 30% for the largest projects “on-site,” or 35% “off-site”) would mean that no housing would be built. Islas’ comment on the affordability question was that “30% of zero is zero.”

Now nearly two years on, and according to a “Downtown Community Plan Monitoring Report” the City issued March 22, Islas’ predictions have proven more accurate that City Manager Cole’s. Since adoption of the DCP, six projects have been proposed under the DCP standards, totaling 335 units, but only 19—only 6%!—are affordable. How can that be, you say? Isn’t 20% the minimum under the DCP?

No. Twenty percent is the minimum for projects over 39 feet tall (“Tier 2 projects.”) Five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1. Under the City’s rosy financial analysis, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The City’s financial consultants, and a majority of City Council members, predicted developers would build market rate units in Santa Monica even if they had to provide higher percentages of affordable housing than were required anywhere else in the state.

Developers are proposing to build market-rate housing (but not much) under DCP standards, but not with nearly the affordable housing City Council wanted to come with it.

As I said, five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1, which means they only have a five percent affordable requirement. One project is Tier 2, but as the March 22 report points out, the developer of that project opted to build to 50 feet even though the zoning would have allowed a height of 60 feet (meaning an additional floor of apartments). By adding that floor, the developer would have increased the affordable obligation from 20% to 25%, presumably wiping out any profit for the additional density.

It’s not only that developers are not building the denser and more affordable housing that the DCP was supposed to encourage, but the housing being proposed contravenes other goals of the DCP. The five Tier 1 DCP projects are entirely comprised of small (less than 375 square feet) studio units. (These units are referred to in developer applications and staff reports as “single room occupancy” (SRO) units, but don’t confuse them with what “SRO” usually refers to, namely “congregant” housing, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and other facilities often built for residents who need supportive services. The proposed units are small versions of what are variously referred to in real estate listings as “studios,” “singles” or “bachelor” units, with their own bathrooms and cooking facilities.)

The DCP is bizarre, but I suppose typical for the product of political “grand bargains,” in that the its standards penalize the building of what the City professes to want—a mix of unit types and affordability to create a diverse neighborhood downtown—while making it easier to build what the City says it doesn’t want, namely smaller projects with 95% market rate units and only one type of unit.

These Tier 1 projects, some of which have replaced previously-proposed Tier 2 projects, have caused the typical hysteria that is the City’s response to events that are simultaneously unexpected and predictable. Tomorrow night City Council will consider an ordinance to ban the building of projects with only small studio units after having adopted an emergency ordinance to do this in March. (Which, no surprise, caused the developer of the Tier 1 all-studio projects to sue the City, since the developer understandably felt that he had played by the rules.)

The ordinance won’t solve the problem, however, since it won’t stop the building of studios that are larger than 375 square feet. Meaning that developers could still build Tier 1, all studio projects, but with fewer, somewhat larger units. These would still be profitable: according to statistics I read in a recent Lookout article, 435-square-foot studios currently rent for about $2,500 (or more) in Santa Monica. That’s more than $5 per square foot. (Meaning that whatever residents who live comfortably in big houses or securely in rent-controlled apartments say, there’s a market for small apartments. Not only young tech workers, but think of the many international students at SMC.)

What developer needs to build above 39 feet if there is that kind of money to be made, especially if approvals are not discretionary and the affordable housing requirement is minimal? Figure it this way: if you remove all the unprofitable affordable housing from a Tier 2 project, you’re probably left with the same amount of profitable square footage in a Tier 1 project. As Islas said, 30% of zero is zero.

The ordinance being proposed is a typical example of a whack-a-mole planning. You don’t like all-studio projects? Ban them: whack! But the problem is not that developers have found a work-around to the City’s Byzantine and onerous requirements under the DCP, but the DCP itself, which the City based on wishful thinking and a financial analysis that developers warned the City was flawed.

The fact that the DCP turns out not to be the housing plan the City touted is borne out by a lot of good news about housing in Santa Monica. Anyone who gets around town these days can see that a lot of apartments are under construction.

New apartments under construction on Lincoln Boulevard

According to a March 26 staff report on the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program, in the four years ending 2018 1001 units were constructed, of which 40% (402) are affordable. The 1001 is consistent with the LUCE’s modest goal that 250 units would be built per year, a one-half percentage point annual increase over the city’s approximately 50,000 housing units. Even more encouraging, 759 units were under construction, and 1,384 units had received planning approval. (Keep in mind that these figures are for the entire city, while the DCP only affects downtown.)

These are the kind of numbers that the City could try to use to justify an exemption to the “dreaded” SB50 making its way through the legislature. However, none of this housing is a product of the DCP.

It’s time to revisit the DCP. But who wants to spend six years doing that?

Thanks for reading.

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.

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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.

Tale of Two Projects

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a specific development project in Santa Monica. About a year ago I was busy writing articles about the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), and after that I had my fill of F.A.R.’s and levels of review, etc. I’ve mostly been writing travelogues since then. In the past week, however, two projects, of quite different scale, and located in different parts of the city, caught my eye.

One is a small, apartment complex, only 47 units, with ground-floor retail, on a typically skinny Lincoln Boulevard parcel at Ashland Avenue. The project survived development review last week when City Council members, claiming (accurately) that state law limited their power to block the project, rejected an appeal by neighbors of a Planning Commission approval of the project back in January. (Neighbors Lose Bid to Stop Apartment Complex on Santa Monica’s Lincoln Boulevard).

I live not far from the site and I either drive or walk past it often. It’s a location of classic crudscape, an ugly lot with several decrepit garages that look like they were built with stucco and tin foil.

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The current site at Ashland and Lincoln

It’s incredible to me that neighbors would fight a new apartment building, with attractive ground-floor retail, on that stretch of Lincoln, but then I know it shouldn’t be incredible to me that a few neighbors will do anything to prevent people from moving into their neighborhood.

I remember when City Council, during the hearings on the LUCE, was debating standards for the boulevards. Council members were succumbing to anti-development arguments about “character” (that vague quality that has historically been used to keep apartments and apartment-dwellers out of insular communities). I remember, though, Bobby Shriver, who was sympathetic to the anti’s on other boulevards, admitting that Lincoln Boulevard was pretty ugly and needed new development. Almost ten years later, after another whole planning process for Lincoln Boulevard, a developer is finally building something—an improvement.

For the appeal staff had to prepare a 29-page staff report, which on top of myriad other documents, including a 50-page staff report for the Planning Commission, means that hundreds of pages of reports were created for . . . a 47-unit project that fits within Tier 2 of the applicable zoning. Months and years go by even with a state-law required “project streamlining” and an exemption from environmental review: the application for this little project was filed in March 2016 and “deemed complete” in May 2016. Already two years ago.

I’m shocked that the developers proposed a Tier 2 building. If they had made it a little smaller (a 1.5 F.A.R. instead of the 1.81 it has), it would have qualified under Tier 1, and they could have avoided this review. I’m glad they were brave—if they can make it to the finish line, the site will have another 10 or 15 apartments. (By the way, the development standards still require an insane about of parking—the project will have 151 expensive underground parking spaces for 47 apartments and about 17,000 square feet of retail. On a transit corridor. Crazy.)

Need I mention that the project replaces commercial zoning with residential development? Isn’t that what we want in jobs rich, housing poor, Santa Monica?

Naturally, the process is not over. The developers still need to take the project back to the Architectural Review Board for a formal review and no doubt another appeal to the Planning Commission. After informal ARB review, and comments from the Planning Commission, the developers and their architects must now deal with the usual litany of vague nostrums about “variation” and “visual breaks” and “modulation” and “granularity.” It’s like the ARB members and Planning Commissioners are wine connoisseurs. Here’s a rendering of the current design.

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As seen in this elevation, the building presents a bold statement on an ugly street. While the ARB and Planning Commissioners (and the anti’s) often complain about bland architecture in Santa Monica, their practice is to screw around with any architects who try to use formal structure and rhythm. They make the same amorphous demands on every project, and then complain that buildings are indistinguishable.

The second project that caught my eye—this one was hard to miss—was the return to the planning process of the Frank Gehry designed hotel project at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

I’m not going to write much about this now—surely there are still years to go on this one and I’ll have more opportunities to write about it later. But as the political class settles down to patting itself on the back about how this project now “fits” the new standards in the DCP, and since the developers have made their peace with the DCP, I’ll be perhaps the one person to talk about what we’ve lost.

Which are 60 condominiums. The new plans are pretty close, in terms of programming, to the old plans, except that 60 condos were sacrificed to make the project fit the new zoning and political standards.

Okay, no one is going to shed a tear for the condos, but let me ask—what was bad about them? In a city of 50,000 housing units, they weren’t going to add to traffic in any measurable way, and they weren’t going to destroy the “character” of anyone’s neighborhood. Yes, rich people were going to buy them, but then we already live in a city where many of the critics of the condos live in houses that are now worth $1,000 per square foot as teardowns.

What the condos would have done is turn thin air into millions of dollars each year of taxes for schools, healthcare, public safety, housing and services for the homeless, etc. Yes, the proverbial bogeymen of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks or—Heaven forbid—young Silicon Beach entrepreneurs, might buy some of the condos and only use them a few weeks a year, but others might be bought by elderly Santa Monica homeowners wishing to downsize but stay put.

What was bad about the condos is that they disturbed the false halo of radicalism that the political class in Santa Monica believes crowns their heads. Santa Monicans are mostly on the Left, and so the rhetoric that comes from the most conservative voices in town must use the language of revolution. Oh, those greedy developers! The neighborhood activists and their politicians use words like “community character” and act as if they’re about to storm the barricades of their own privilege, but it’s all about pleasing people who, in the opposite of a progressive agenda, fear change.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.

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In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.

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At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.

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This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.

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Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

Local politics: disconnected

I spend too much time on Facebook, but I have learned a few things there. One is that there’s a disconnect between local politics and the other kind.

On Facebook there’s a daily conversation among a few hundred avid followers of and participants in Santa Monica politics. In the ocean of Santa Monica voters, we Facebook posters (and lurkers) are only a few fish, but the volume of the stream of consciousness can approach the flow of a river and the decibels of a waterfall.

The discussions can become, or even start out, heated. But what’s funny is that when it comes to national politics—namely, the presidential election—nearly all the Santa Monicans violently “commenting” at each other about the City Council, or Measure LV, or any other local thing, find themselves in agreement that electing Donald Trump would presage the apocalypse.

I might read a post from a Residocracy member that drives me crazy, but if I click on another link I might find out that this same person just posted a video about why Hillary Clinton should be president. This doesn’t mean that all Residocracy members or other supporters of Measure LV are liberals like me, as some of them don’t support affordable housing and from some of their posts one can detect various reactionary or libertarian views. Nor, by the way, are all opponents of LV liberals—it’s not surprising that there are  property or business owners, who oppose LV, who are conservative.

What one often notices from the pro-LV posts is an attempt to fit LV into a liberal, progressive ideology. Many LV supporters are convinced that stopping the building of market rate apartments will keep housing prices down. Their logic seems to be that because developers can charge high rents for the new units the rents on the new units will increase the average cost of housing in Santa Monica. That logic is convoluted, but okay, it’s a logic.

Then there is the greed of developers. There are times I’m on Facebook and I wonder if I’ve traveled back in time, to a Depression-era Leninist study group. Most pro-LV arguments ultimately devolve into calls to arms against those archetypal capitalists, real estate developers. It’s all about how obscene their profits are, or how high their rents are, ignoring the fact that they can charge high rents and make so much money because of the housing shortage restrictive zoning has created. (And anyone who opposes LV must be on the developer take.)

Hey, we live in a capitalist society. That’s how we assemble the capital it takes to build nearly all the housing in this country. Everyone in Santa Monica lives on a lot that was subdivided by a developer to make money, and most live in buildings built by them for the same purpose. (In Santa Monica many (but not all) of those who complain bitterly about the greed of housing developers also have opposed tax measures the City has put on the ballot to create public funding for housing, such as H and HH in 2014 and GS and GSH on this year’s ballot. Meaning that they are against both capitalist and socialist models of getting needed housing built. But then we also have residents who insist that they favor more housing, but who also insist that studio and one-bedroom apartments are too small and condominiums are too big. The privilege of the housed?)

I don’t doubt the liberalism of these anti-development Santa Monicans. The reason I don’t is that one can sense the anguish they feel when they are confronted with evidence that progressive opinion favors infill development in existing cities, like Santa Monica, to create livable, attractive cities that retain and attract investment that would otherwise go to sprawl. I.e., favors what LV opposes. There’s big cognitive dissonance when people who consider themselves progressive, especially Baby Boomers who were on the barricades in the ’60s, hear over and over that they are on the wrong side of history when they demonize urban development. On Facebook, you can practically hear the gnashing of teeth.

The progressive arguments favoring cities against sprawl began as a reaction against the negative consequences of suburban development. The Sierra Club, for instance, first adopted policies favoring infill development 30 years ago. Around the same time movements like New Urbanism and Smart Growth began to preach an anti-sprawl gospel that celebrated traditional urban neighborhoods. Like the proverbial ocean liner, the course of urban policies took a long time to correct, but the speed in the direction of good city building and away from sprawl is accelerating.

Our president, Barack Obama, has always favored urban investment as opposed to suburban development. Back in February 2009, shortly after taking office, he told an audience in Florida that, “[t]he days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over.” Many of the President’s policies during his eight years in office have supported better urbanism, and last month his administration published a “Housing Development Toolkit” that combined explanations of many progressive urban policies in one document.

From a Santa Monica perspective, the toolkit reads like a manifesto against Measure LV and the “build it somewhere else” culture of restrictive zoning that spawned LV, with quotes that eerily describe the situation on the Westside in general and in Santa Monica in particular:

Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

While the housing market recovery has meant growing home values . . . barriers to development concentrate these gains among existing homeowners, pushing the costs of ownership out of reach for too many first-time buyers.

Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains [in housing], however, by building up with infill, reducing the eyesores of empty lots and vacant or rundown buildings that go undeveloped in highly constrained regulatory environments.

Unsurprisingly, many cities with the highest local barriers [to building housing] have seen increases in homelessness in recent years, while nationwide homelessness has been sharply in decline.

The fact that liberals and progressives who support LV and similar anti-development policies are at odds with current liberal and progressive policies doesn’t mean that one should not be skeptical about those policies. One should always be skeptical; today’s pro-urban policies exist only because of skepticism about policies that were once considered progressive and had government support, such as urban renewal, modernist public housing blocks, and conventional suburban development.

Those policies created new problems, and those problems required new thinking. But to be progressive one has to believe in progress. You can’t be progressive if you favor nostalgia and fear change. But progress is conservative in that it must be based on trial and error, i.e., learning from one’s mistakes. Today’s progressive urban policies weren’t created from thin air. They arose from analyzing the mistakes of generations past, such as modernist planning (urban renewal, freeways, etc.) or conventional suburban development.

We can’t predict the future, but we can avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations made. One of those mistakes was building sprawl instead of investing in our cities.

Thanks for reading.

LUVE: What we don’t need now

When voters submit an initiative to enact a law, Section 9212 of the California Elections Code authorizes the relevant legislative body to commission a report analyzing the impacts the initiative would have, including, specifically, its impact “on the use of land, the impact on the availability and location of housing, and the ability of the city to meet its regional housing needs.”

The State of California considers those issues to be important, and so does the Santa Monica City Council. When presented last month with Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment” initiative (LUVE), the council requested a Section 9212 report, which it received from city staff last week. The council will consider the report at its meeting tomorrow night.

The 65-page report is negative about LUVE, which would, in general but with some exceptions, require voter approval of new construction taller than 32 feet. The report finds not only that LUVE would have many negative unintended consequences, such as making post-earthquake reconstruction problematic, but also that LUVE would have a negative impact on its ostensible intended consequences, such as preventing worsening traffic congestion and gentrification.

The report also explains why LUVE, or most of it, would be unenforceable under state law, because state law does not allow voter approval of administrative decisions, and how legislation Gov. Jerry Brown is about to get passed streamlining approvals of certain urban residential developments will likely override much of LUVE.

For all that, the scope of the Section 9212 report does not extend to the two most damning arguments against LUVE: one, that there is no overdevelopment crisis in Santa Monica that requires the drastic solution of voter approval over development, and two, that it would be a nightmare to have to vote on development decisions.

As for point one, for more than 40 years, with little resort to ballot box government, Santa Monica has closely regulated development. Ever since the public rose up in the ’70s and elected new city councilmembers to stop the destruction of the Pier and the building of an island in Santa Monica Bay, there has been a consensus that the City needs to control development. While land use politics in Santa Monica can be remarkably bitter, the differences Santa Monicans argue over are small when looked at objectively, or regionally, i.e., compared to growth in the surrounding City of L.A., L.A. County or southern California as a whole.

Contrary to Residocracy’s rhetoric, Santa Monica has intensified its regulation of growth over the past 20 years. A recent analysis showed that since 2003 only about an average of 48,000 square feet of net new commercial space has been built in Santa Monica annually; compare this to the 9,000,000 square feet of office development that was approved in the ’80s and built by the mid-’90s.

Residential development has also been modest. Since 2003, Santa Monica has seen an average net increase of about 230 new housing units a year. Given that Santa Monica has nearly 50,000 units in total, this increase is only about half of one percent per year. This is not massive overdevelopment. It’s fear mongering to claim, as Residocracy does, that LUVE is needed to prevent future overdevelopment.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be controversies about development in the future. The City is in the process of making decisions for the next 20 or 30 years of development in downtown. Vigorous debate is healthy and to be expected. But based on the history, there’s no reason to suspect that planning staff and our Planning Commission and City Council can’t make intelligent decisions that balance the pros and cons of new plans and proposals.

As for the second crucial argument against LUVE, do we really want to vote on development proposals and planning documents? Is ballot box government a good idea?

Before you answer that question, consider that in November there will be 17 statewide measures on the ballot. Things aren’t yet settled, but it looks like there will be at least a dozen county, city, or school measures also on the ballot, including several crucial tax measures. It’s been a century since the “Progressive Era” reforms brought the initiative and referendum to California. Was it ever intended that voters would have a ballot with 30 measures to vote on?

For every great initiative like the Coastal Act, there are dozens of nightmares. It’s not that initiatives don’t sometimes respond to real problems, but the nature of an initiative is to remove the flexibility to respond to change that is one of the virtues of representative democracy. Initiatives also have a multiplier effect, since they typically require more and more votes on matters that used to be routinely left to elected representatives. California government, for instance, at all levels has been hobbled by the restrictions of Prop. 13 and 218 on the power to tax. Weakening government has not made government better or improved the lives of Californians.

LUVE wants to do the same thing with the power to plan. According the City’s Section 9212 report, currently there are 12 proposals to build apartments in Santa Monica and 10 of them would require voter approval under LUVE. Assume that even half the developers decided to brave the process instead of taking the easy way out and building low-slung retail or offices, which are quite profitable (but which, by the way, generate more traffic than housing). Would you want to vote on five apartment buildings in 2018? How many campaign mailers can your mailbox hold?

Let’s say you do want to vote on them all—are you ready, willing and able to review the hundreds of pages of documentation and plans necessary to conscientiously evaluate each project?

Thanks for reading.

A map from the Section 9212 report (fig. 4, page 26) showing all the buildings (residential in green, commercial in pink) in Santa Monica that would have required voter approval if LUVE had been in effect when they were built.

A map from the Section 9212 report (fig. 4, page 26) showing all the buildings (residential in green, non-residential in pink) in Santa Monica that would have required voter approval if LUVE had been in effect when they were built.