Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Dear Hines: Please sell. Sincerely, Santa Monica

As I watched the City Council rescind its approval of the Hines Paper Mate site project what became overwhelmingly apparent was that by the end of the road, after seven years, Hines and its project were alone. Friendless. From the public, only the indefatigable Jerry Rubin spoke in favor of the project. All those supporters from before, vanished.

From the dais, there wasn’t much more support. Terry O’Day voted for the project again, but he acknowledged it was not the best it could be. Risk-averse, he voted for it because he feared the worst. Gleam Davis defended the project, but, conflict-averse, she voted to rescind. Bob Holbrook spoke little about the project, instead lamenting how nasty politics had become, and noting that change was inevitable. Pam O’Connor didn’t have to say anything.

The most profound silence came, however, from the developer. Ever since Hines got the four votes its execs thought were all they needed, the company has done nothing, at least in public, to defend its project. There was no campaign contra the signature gathering, and there were no offers to revise the project in the face of the opposition against it. Was this ambivalence or fatalism? Or arrogance?

Through my column (and occasionally over breakfast) I have been telling Hines for five years that to be approved Paper Mate had to be a residential project because adding even one car trip to the intersection of 26th and Olympic would drive people crazy. I’ve talked to brick walls that listen better.

In fairness to Hines, they thought they had a deal, because the City, in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, wanted more commercial office space in the Bergamot area, and that’s what the LUCE called for. The council approved the LUCE on a 7-0 vote, and Hines had grounds to believe that that was the deal. Times change, however, and ultimately it is the developer’s responsibility to call an audible when they do. Hines should have asked to amend the LUCE so that it could develop a residential project.

The crucial moment took place in February when Hines got its four votes. Hines could have had six, which would have changed the political dynamic entirely, if someone from the company had jumped up that night to accept the offer that Ted Winterer made to approve the deal if 150,000 square feet of commercial development was shifted to residential. (Winterer had other concerns as well, notably about architecture, but one assumes they could have been resolved.)

Winterer’s proposal would have entailed more environmental review, because the scope of the environmental review had remarkably not included more residential development, and that would have created some uncertainty. But it would have created a better plan. If Hines had said that night that it could make the revised plan work, it could easily have had at least six votes to approve, since Tony Vazquez voted for Winterer’s motion, too.

Memo to developers: if you have a big project in Santa Monica, you need to count higher than four.

What now? I know that Terry O’Day hopes more than anything that his fears are proven wrong and Hines does not start the process to reoccupy the existing building, but it’s hard to dismiss his fears. If I ran Hines, that’s what I would do, because they no longer have friends to support them here during a new process.

But I have hope. There’s an alternative. My hope is that Hines sells the property to a new developer, one that specializes in urban residential development. There are good residential developers working in Santa Monica already, and there are others working in the region. Perhaps the fundamental problem with the project was that Hines is a commercial developer, and never seemed comfortable with building a place for people to live.

By the way, it’s a good time to sell, or at least to bring in a residential developer partner to take over. According to an article in today’s L.A. Times, the multi-family residential market is booming. Dear Hines: You’ll get your money back.

A new developer would not have to start from scratch. A lot of good planning has been done, such the new streets and pathways. Bring in new architects and planners, however. Let them reconfigure the open space to make it better suit a residential development. That wouldn’t mean there couldn’t be good public spaces connecting the station with the area to the north. There are many urban plazas around the world that are framed with residences.

According to the EIR, nearly all the new car trips the project would have generated would have come from the commercial development. Eliminate the offices, and the impacts of the project will be entirely different.

These seven acres across the street from the Bergamot stop on the Expo line need to be redeveloped to replace the hulking mass of the old factory. It’s time to get someone new to do it.

Thanks for reading.

The Paper Mate factory

The Paper Mate factory

It was 20 some years ago today

It’s impossible not to be impressed with the job Residocracy and its allies did collecting signatures for the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. In retrospect they didn’t need to hire canvassers, since the paid signature gatherers only accounted for 2,200 or so of the 13,440 signatures Residocracy collected. Volunteers were all over the city: I was approached at least five times to sign.

Okay, I wasn’t going to sign it, but congratulations to those who joined together to do something they believed in. (Armen Melknonians, the founder of Residocracy, called it — he told Jason Islas of The Lookout on Feb. 7 that they’d get twice the 6,100 signatures that were needed.)

So now what? The layers of speculation are many. Will City Council repeal the development agreement or put it to a vote? Will Hines fight the referendum or throw in the towel and submit plans to re-use the old building? Can anyone mediate a new plan that would be acceptable to both Hines and the referendum supporters?

I can’t analyze these possibilities because the answers depend on data and calculations (not to mention psyches and emotions) out of my reach. More analyzable, although not necessarily predictable, are the prospects for the referendum if it’s put to a vote. That’s because Santa Monica has had referendums on specific projects before.

The votes that seem most relevant were the 1990 referendum on City Council’s approval of the hotel that Michael McCarty wanted to build at 415 Pacific Coast Highway (now the location of the Annenberg Community Beach House), and the 1994 referendum on the Civic Center Specific Plan.

The ’90s may seem to be a long time ago, but you know about the more things changing. How about this quote, which opens an October 1990 Los Angeles Times article about how development had supplanted rent control as the big political issue in Santa Monica:

Santa Monica, as City Council candidate Sharon Gilpin sees it, has lost its way.

While pursuing the admirable goal of finding money to pay for an ambitious array of social services, she says, the progressive politicians who have been running the city have struck a “Faustian bargain” with developers. The city may get the money it needs, but the price is a steep one: Hotels, office and commercial developments are transforming the beach community into a congested urban center.

In October, when local reporters are writing about the election coming up, how many names of candidates will they be able to substitute for “Sharon Gilpin” in that passage and cut-and-paste it into their coverage?

At issue in 1990 was McCarty’s beach hotel, which would have been built on state-owned land and which would have replaced a beach club that was beloved by many. The hotel was voted down overwhelmingly — 62% to 38%. This was also the election where voters passed measures prohibiting new hotels in the coastal zone and requiring that at least 30% of housing built in the city be affordable to moderate and low income households (which some interpreted as a means of stopping condo and other housing development). Earlier in 1990, City Council had repealed its approval of a big office development at the airport when presented with enough signatures to put the project on the ballot.

These victories gave the anti-development side confidence that they could block large-scale developments. When the City Council approved the Civic Center Specific Plan in 1993, which allowed for the development of about one million square feet of offices and housing, they collected signatures to put the plan on the June 1994 ballot. This time, however, the voters approved the plan overwhelmingly, 60% to 40%, notwithstanding the rallying cry against it that it would generate an additional 22,000 car trips a day.

I suspect we can still learn something from these votes. As I see it, there were these major differences between the McCarty hotel project and the Civic Center plan:

Private vs. Public. The McCarty plan was going to allow a private developer to make money, and specifically allow him to make money on public land. In contrast the Civic Center plan put the profit-making development on private land, and the landowner — the RAND Corporation — was a local, well-respected nonprofit institution. With the Paper Mate project, this factor could go either way. The profits will come from private investment in privately-owned land, but the developer is seen as the archetypal big developer from out-of-town.

Politics. Perhaps the key factor in the voters’ approval of the Civic Center plan was that the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics was split. The City Council vote approving the plan was 7-0 and the yes votes included two of the staunchest anti-development politicians of the time — Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen. In fact, Genser was one of the plan’s strongest proponents and had been deeply involved in its preparation (one reason why the plan was appealing). In contrast, the anti-development community was united against the McCarty hotel — as it is today against the Paper Mate project, where it believes it’s been ignored in the planning process.

Plan suitability/quality. The McCarty hotel project was well-designed for what it was (and it included major public amenities), but it replaced a use, the beach club, that people liked, and building a luxury development on the beach is never going to have mass appeal. In contrast, the Civic Center plan promised to turn a superblock full of surface parking lots into something nice.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan

On this issue, I’d say the jury is out on Paper Mate: Hines will be able to give voters appealing “before and after” illustrations showing how they will turn the old factory into something better, but they’re going to be up against the reality that adding more office development to that gridlocked location seems instinctively wrong.

So who knows?

I also want to say something about the CEQA lawsuit the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) has filed against the Paper Mate project. I haven’t read the complaint and in any case I’m not a CEQA lawyer, and so I have no opinion about whether SMCLC has a good case (except that good luck to anyone up against the redoubtable Marsha Moutrie, crosser of T’s and dotter of I’s). I have to applaud SMCLC, however, for suing on the grounds that the EIR did not “properly study reasonable project alternatives” — particularly alternatives with more housing and less commercial development. As I wrote in February, it was the narrow scope of the environmental review that at the end made it impossible for the City Council to try to negotiate a better project with more housing and less commercial development.

Thanks for reading.

Creative Tensions vs. Blunt Instruments

So far two people I know and two I don’t have asked me to sign the referendum against the Hines Paper Mate project. The proponents are getting their message out. But I have declined to sign.

The Hines plan isn’t perfect, and I have standing to say that. As the plans for the Paper Mate site went through four years of gestation as the City wrote the LUCE and then adopted it in 2010, I argued in my Lookout columns that the City’s planners and consultants were calling for too much commercial development in the Bergamot area, which includes the Paper Mate site. My view was that all development in excess of existing zoning there should be residential.

Except for former mayor Paul Rosenstein, I don’t remember anyone from the public during the LUCE process arguing against the amount of commercial development — certainly not any of the key people who are today behind Residocracy.org, the organization that is sponsoring the referendum. This was odd, because in 2008 the RIFT initiative was all about limiting commercial development. At the end of the LUCE process, former mayor Dennis Zane appeared before the council to criticize the amount of commercial development, but by then it was too late.

Ted Winterer, then on the Planning Commission, and Kevin McKeown on the City Council, argued for less commercial development, and there was a small reduction in part of the area (not the part with the Paper Mate site) before the council passed the LUCE on 7-0 vote.

Yet today critics see the amount of office space in the Hines plan as the worst element of it – certainly the element that will contribute to gridlock.

Why does the LUCE call for more commercial development in the Bergamot area? In fairness, a lot had to do with the times. City Council finally approved the LUCE in summer 2010, and the LUCE was drafted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, when governments everywhere, including here, were panicking about their budgets. The council received a financial analysis that pointed out, not surprisingly, that commercial development was better for the City’s bottom line than residential (more taxes, less services to provide).

We who predicted that more commercial development near the Water Garden, the Arboretum, and Colorado Center, would never pass a traffic smell test and that the city needed housing more than it needed “creative office” jobs, were told by planners that the traffic issue was moot because office development would attract more riders to the Expo line and that the housing that the city needs would be provided elsewhere — downtown and along the boulevards.

Three-and-a-half years later the City’s budget is on the mend, every housing development proposed for the boulevards is under attack, and folks who once said they loved the LUCE in part because of the community benefits it would link to development, now dispute even the concept of community benefits and proceed to attack City Hall for profligacy in the delivery of the exceptional services they demand.

Not to mention smell tests, but a more-or-less trivial (in the big scheme of things) increase in traffic predicted to be caused by the Paper Mate project has provoked a backlash that would not only stop the development, but also would likely kill the Bergamot Area Plan the City Council approved last fall.

So I understand why people support the referendum; indeed, Paul Rosenstein does, and that means a lot. But I don’t support it for two basic reasons.

The first is that while the plan that City Council approved is not perfect, it’s pretty good. It’s got the new streets that connect old industrial areas to the Expo line, it’s got housing in a good location, and it only adds about 150,000 square feet to the commercial development that is already there. The plan is so much better than the hulking factory that is there now, that it is unfathomable to me that anyone would risk having the place reoccupied. (Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis expressed this argument well in a letter they wrote to the Lookout.)

True, it would better if, as proposed by Ted Winterer at City Council and Richard McKinnon on the Planning Commission, those 150,000 square feet of office were converted to residential, and I wish that Hines had grabbed that deal. But Hines didn’t, and I don’t believe that 150,000 square feet of office development in a sea of millions of the same is worth having a war over and worth losing, quite possibly, the benefits of the plan that were worked out over seven years of planning and negotiations.

My second reason for opposing the referendum is that, as the referendum’s proponents say, the referendum is about “changing the nature of politics in Santa Monica.” If I can summarize my first reason for opposing the referendum as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” then I can summarize the second as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I mean, look around – compared to the rest of the California, or the universe even, is Santa Monica poorly governed? For the past 30 years, haven’t politics-as-usual here, overall, done a rather good job? In 2012 did you wonder why Richard Bloom, when he won election to the State Assembly, practically ran on a platform of being “Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom?” When it comes to government, complain all you want, but for everyone else in the region, Santa Monica is the top.

Even looking at Santa Monica through an anti-development lens, how many people realize that for 20 years, since the Water Garden opened, there has been virtually no new (not counting re-habs and replacement projects) commercial development in Santa Monica? Nearly all the development has been housing, which we need at all income levels, and which does not cause the gridlock people complain about.

Where is this massive over-development I keep hearing about?

Yes, my soul too has been crushed as I sit in traffic (as if souls are less crushed elsewhere in Southern California), but consider this: if you’re a Santa Monica resident and you work, your average commute time is significantly less than elsewhere in the region.

Doesn’t it mean something that if you own a house here, your property held its value remarkably well during the Great Recession? That we have excellent services and great schools, which our residents and City support? That we’ve consistently added over 30 years more park acreage? And doesn’t it mean something that our rent control laws have resulted in a remarkably stable community?

For more than 30 years the creative tensions in Santa Monica politics – including tensions between SMRR and its opponents, tensions among the various elements within SMRR, tensions created by shifting alliances to achieve various important goals, such as those relating to education, good jobs, homelessness, and youth violence – have been just that, creative.

The referendum approach is a blunt instrument, and I fear that from it the city will sustain blunt instrument trauma.

Thanks for reading.

The Paper Mate factory

The Paper Mate factory