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.

“Are we there yet?”

With the Santa Monica City Council’s action last week approving the new zoning ordinance, leaving only a pro forma second reading to finalize the new law, it looked like eleven long years of planning would soon come to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was finally more glare than glimmer.

Slow down. We’re not there yet. Just when you think it might be safe for Santa Monica government to spend more time and resources on something other than responding irrationally to bad traffic, the anti-development group Residocracy is contemplating, dare I say threatening, a referendum on the zoning ordinance.

That glare that looked sunny turns out to be oncoming headlights.

According to a Lookout article headlined “Santa Monica Slow-Growth Groups look to Public Vote on Development Issues,” Residocracy is polling its members on whether they want to take to the street to gather signatures to overturn the new zoning law, and the group’s founder Armen Melkonians expects they will say yes. (Who’s going to say no?)

Melkonians told the Lookout that the new zoning, though approved by the council’s anti-development majority, “‘still creates density.’” “‘Are we going to grow Santa Monica,’” he asked, “‘so it doubles its population?’”

Well, the answer to that question is no, or at least not until a few generations or even centuries have passed. I mean, even if Santa Monica adds all of the 4,955 housing units predicted under the LUCE by 2030, that’s only about a 10 percent increase in the city’s stock of housing units. That’s unlikely even to result in a 10 percent increase in population, however, because for decades the average number of people living in each housing unit in Santa Monica has been in decline.

Even if—as Melkonians fears—Santa Monica should add more than 4,955 units, say, twice that many, by 2030, a 20 percent increase, and even if each percentage point increase in units translated into a percentage point increase in population, well, can someone do the math? How long would it take to double the number of housing units if there was a 20 percent increase every 20 years?

In any case a while, but any significant population increase is unlikely. To give some perspective, Santa Monica’s population in 1970 was 88,289. In 2010, after decades of purported “massive overdevelopment,” it was 89,736. (I know that estimates since the 2010 census have added a few thousand more residents, but the history of those population estimates is that they get debunked when the decennial census comes around. The estimates focus on the number of housing units, but historically haven’t take into account how many young Santa Monicans leave town each year rarely to return.)

Okay, I get it—surely Melkonians was being rhetorical. But that’s what happens when you start asking people to sign petitions. If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of a local referendum campaign must be any sense of reality.

Residocracy isn’t the only group talking about going to the voters. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), Santa Monica’s more establishment, less populist, anti-development group, is considering a Version 2.0 of the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), their unsuccessful 2008 initiative. SMCLC wants to give voters a veto over “large projects.”

Based on an open letter to supporters that SMCLC leadership published last week, it does not appear, however, that SMCLC wants to join in an effort to overturn the zoning ordinance. For now at least, based on the letter it appears that SMCLC leadership is celebrating the new law, and especially the reductions in the scope of the LUCE, as the product of the anti-development majority SMCLC helped elect last November.

This makes sense, since the SMCLC leadership has long ties to councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer and they view the new zoning law as an achievement.

But indications are that SMCLC wants to bring back a new version of RIFT. SMCLC has never trusted the City Council or planning staff, and according to the letter to supporters, “large projects must be subject to a resident vote.” SMCLC’s co-chair of SMCLC, Diana Gordon, told the Lookout that the group would support a measure like RIFT. SMCLC touted the fact that RIFT garnered more than 18,000 votes in 2008. (The problem for SMCLC was that nearly 51,000 Santa Monicans voted that year.)

Of course, as Melkonians acknowledged to the Lookout, the point of having votes on developments is to scare developers away. While according to him, “only the best projects would go through,” the opposite is true. Developers and landowners will build to the lowest common denominator, slicing and dicing their projects to slip under whatever the voter-approval threshold is. It’s strange to hear a group like SMCLC, which I believe honestly wants better projects to be built, promote voter control as a way to get them.

SMCLC blames RIFT’s loss in 2008 on, as Gordon told the Lookout, its being “‘outspent in a deceptive opposition campaign.’” “Deceptive” is in the eye of the beholder, but the last several elections, notably the votes in 2014 on Measures D and LC, if anything show that money doesn’t mean much in Santa Monica elections. Beyond the merits of any thing or person on the ballot, endorsements are what count. In 2008 most of the well-respected elected officials in and around Santa Monica opposed RIFT, and SMRR was neutral.

Promoters of new anti-development referendums, whether to overturn the zoning law or to make developments subject to popular vote, would no doubt base their campaigns on their conviction that the views of voters have changed.

We’d find out.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica, post LUCE: slicing and dicing ahead

About 25 years ago laws designed to protect existing housing from demolition had made it difficult to build new housing in Santa Monica. Housing developers sued, complaining that Santa Monica was violating state laws designed to encourage housing. They won and the City had to revise its housing policies.

Santa Monica still wanted to protect existing housing, and the City devised a brilliant solution. City Council retained protections for housing in the neighborhoods, but enacted new zoning that allowed and encouraged housing in commercial districts downtown. It took a while for the new policies to have an impact because of the economic troubles of the ’90s, but by the end of the decade downtown developers were building significant numbers of apartments.

While most council members were happy with the new housing, some were not thrilled with the form it was taking. The developments were typically five-story buildings with ground floor retail, built with wood-frame construction above a first floor of concrete. Council members wanted more varied architecture and design elements such as courtyards that were open to the street.

The late Ken Genser was particularly concerned with these issues. He acknowledged that to allow for better design projects would need to be bigger; in fact the focus of his complaint was that developers were “slicing and dicing” projects to make them small enough not to be subject to discretionary development review, which then made amenities like courtyards difficult to provide.

I was reminded of this history as I watched the City Council’s hearing Wednesday night on the new zoning code. With planning staff and the council majority joining to reduce drastically the geography for Tier 3 developments, and to eliminate “activity centers” (on Wilshire today, everywhere tomorrow), expect to see more slicing and dicing.

It was only five years ago, with the approval of the new Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE), that staff and the council were trying to encourage better developments, developments that would include public serving open-spaces, shared parking, grocery stores and other neighborhood serving retail, and other public amenities. To get these amenities (not to mention more affordable housing), the LUCE counted on developers to use Tier 3 and activity centers, because those larger projects would require development agreements. Development agreements get a bad rap, but it’s through them that the City can get more from developers.

I’m not one of those who believe that abandoning Tier 3 means no housing will be built. So long as interest rates are low and tenants will pay monthly rents of $4 per square foot, developers will find ways to build. But with the elimination of Tier 3 and activity centers, forget the public spaces, shared parking, etc.

Imagine you’re the owner of the property underneath a big grocery store or shopping centers on a boulevard. When the day comes when you want to turn the property over, what do you think you’ll do? Try to build something big, with a public plaza, shared public parking, and a supermarket? Or slice and dice your land and build boxes?

In much of the city, there is no longer even that choice. In the post LUCE environment, the rule will be “make no big plans.”

• • •

I also get the feeling that staff and some members of the council expect that by eviscerating the LUCE they will mollify the most vociferous voices against any development that doesn’t conform to idealized mid-20th century suburbia. Dream on. As these council members approve developments that fit the new standards, they will become the new targets of anti-development wrath.

Which makes me think of Ken Genser again. Genser was the original and most creative of all anti-development politicians in Santa Monica. Strongly protective of neighborhoods, instigator and supporter of various down-zonings, Genser nonetheless made distinctions. He supported the two most contentious developments that arose during his time on council, the original Civic Center Specific Plan and the downtown Target.

Genser never wavered in his belief in a low-scale city, but he ultimately concluded that those who were most adamant against development could never be satisfied. Each reduction in development standards only moved the goalposts. Near the end of his life Genser even opposed Measure T, the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic,” that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) put on the 2008 ballot.

The goalposts continue to move. For more than 30 years most Santa Monicans have agreed that Santa Monica should closely regulate development and the City has responded by restricting development. (We all know the facts, that there has been little development in Santa Monica.) But every few years a new crop of anti-development activists rise up and act as if they are the first people to notice that traffic is bad. How else do you explain that the LUCE, which anti-development groups, such as the SMCLC, lauded when it was passed, has now become, five years later, the embodiment of evil to the new group, Residocracy, and other new, anti-development voices?

As cities evolve, change is disorienting. But we wouldn’t have neighborhoods we love, like Ocean Park, Pico, or Wilmont, or now downtown, and tens of thousands of Santa Monicans wouldn’t live in those neighborhoods, if change hadn’t happened.

Change can enhance what we have already. Main Street is not even a boulevard, but consider what’s happened north of Ocean Park Boulevard. Various groups of residents opposed the apartments and retail that replaced the Boulangerie, the CCSM affordable housing at Main and Pacific (with its local-serving shops), and the Urth Cafe. But they all got built and they’ve turned those blocks into a better neighborhood center than what was there before.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thanks for reading.

Amending the LUCE: at what point does Santa Monica give back the awards?

The Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the city’s general plan in 2010. The LUCE then won statewide, regional and local awards, including “Outstanding Comprehensive Planning Award, Small Jurisdiction” from the California and Los Angeles divisions of the American Planning Association (APA), the “Compass Blueprint Sustained Leadership Award” from the Southern California Association of Government, and the David Cameron Award from the Santa Monica Conservancy.

The plan was also popular locally across the development-politics board. Not coincidentally, the Planning Director who oversaw the development of the LUCE, Eileen Fogarty, departed Santa Monica almost universally admired. Fogarty was especially lauded, again across the board, for her untiring efforts to involve residents in the LUCE process, especially residents who did not often participate in local affairs.

Why the awards and the popularity? The LUCE had “that vision thing.” The APA awards, for example, are intended to recognize “originality, innovation and [a] visionary approach to planning.” As someone who, as a columnist, watched, often critically, the LUCE’s six-year gestation period, the awards didn’t surprise me. It did take originality, innovation and vision to plan for inevitable growth in the post-sprawl context of Santa Monica, where urbanization has occurred and will continue to occur on a transportation matrix mostly defined in mid-20th century suburban terms.

The LUCE did so (i) by concentrating growth in a few areas that could accommodate change without disrupting existing patterns of city life, and (ii) by encouraging urban design that would create better places than the industrial brownfields and strip retail districts that new buildings would replace.

Five years have passed. It’s taken that long for a zoning ordinance update (ZOU) that would implement the LUCE to reach the City Council. Tomorrow night the council will commence a review and approval process for the ZOU that will continue into May and possibly June. The question is whether the vision of the LUCE will survive.

Although there are some thorny issues to deal with in the zoning ordinance itself, expect that most of the controversy at the ZOU hearings will involve proposed amendments to the LUCE. While some of these amendments are more-or-less technical, others implicate the core values of the LUCE. These amendments would remove from the LUCE the possibility of larger and more flexible developments, to create better public spaces, on Wilshire (by means of two “activity centers”) and elsewhere (by means of “Tier 3” developments). (I wrote about these amendments last month when they were before the Planning Commission.)

If the council accepts these amendments, then the council should offer to return the awards that the LUCE won, because the vision of the LUCE will be erased.

It’s not only what happens with these proposed amendments. As I discussed last week, the re-occupying of the Paper Made factory site has killed the LUCE vision for the industrial areas north of Olympic. But the new proposed amendments will eviscerate any creative ideas that were possible under the LUCE for the boulevards. With no activity centers on Wilshire and no Tier 3 on most of the boulevards, anything that is built there will be box retail or two-story office buildings, or, if a developer is brave enough to try even the Tier 2 discretionary process, the plain vanilla apartment buildings with ground-floor retail that the anti-development people say they hate so much. (I should also mention that the LUCE contains design requirements to make sure that activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not adversely affect adjacent neighborhoods.)

The LUCE was hardly perfect. Since before the council passed the LUCE I have been a relentless critic of the housing/office ratios it mandated for the old industrial areas; one plank of my campaign platform last year was to amend the LUCE to decrease the amount of office and increase the amount of housing. The LUCE is not holy writ. However, as a matter of process, aside from technical or otherwise small-scale amendments, any major substantive changes to the LUCE should require a process that has public outreach analogous to what took place during development of the LUCE (and no, it doesn’t need to take six years). Otherwise, concerted action by only a few members of the public might subvert the product of six years of input from many residents, including residents who aren’t regularly involved in these debates.

It is also a bit absurd for the City to consider these amendments in the context of the ZOU, since activity centers and Tier 3 projects would not even come under the zoning ordinance. That’s because they would require development agreements, which the zoning code doesn’t control and which require their own public processes. Activity centers even require the adoption of something called an “area plan.”

The council should deal with the ZOU now, and then initiate a public process to consider proposed major amendments to the LUCE. (Including, by the way, changing the housing/office ratios.)

Thanks for reading.

How to build boxes on the boulevards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.