What would Arcadia do?

Let me begin my further ruminations and fulminations on the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) with a quibble, namely the failure to include in the DCP’s historical background section mention of Arcadia Bandini de Baker as a founder of Santa Monica. The DCP identifies as founders only Arcadia’s husband, Col. Robert Symington Baker, and Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones, while arguably Arcadia was the most important of the three for Santa Monica’s history. (I don’t mean to offend the dignity of Señora de Baker, but I’ll take the liberty of using her first name, since in her day she was well known by it.)

Arcadia Terrace sign

Santa Monica’s first resort hotel, Arcadia’s namesake, was here.

Arcadia was enormously wealthy. She was rich not only from being a member of a Californio land grant family, but also from what she had inherited from her first husband, Abel Stearns, perhaps in his day the richest man in southern California, and from her own business acumen. A true California, Arcadia never spoke English, at least not in public, conducting all her many business dealings in Spanish.

It’s true that Baker, whom Arcadia married in 1875, had acquired the land that would become Santa Monica before their marriage, and he owned it when, a few months after he and Arcadia married, he and Jones (who brought the railroad to Santa Monica), sold the first lots at auction. Arcadia, however, was right there, involved in designing how the town was subdivided, making sure there was land for schools, churches and parks. Even more significant, in 1877 Baker sold the land to Arcadia and Jones and it was those two who then formed the Santa Monica Land and Water Company. Later, Arcadia collaborated with Collis Huntington when he built the Long Wharf and tried to make Santa Monica the region’s great port.

Arcadia lived out her days in a mansion on Ocean Avenue (near her friend, Georgina Jones) and was a great philanthropist. She and Senator Jones donated the land for Palisades Park, the land for the Westwood veterans home, and land for other public purposes. When she died in 1912 she left a fortune estimated at between eight and fifteen million dollars, the equivalent of hundreds of millions today. In her lifetime and after she was known as the “Godmother of Santa Monica.”

Unfortunately, the DCP is not the only place where the City has recently neglected Arcadia’s legacy. Last month the City installed historical pavers in the sidewalk on Fourth Street north of the downtown Expo station, and they name only Jones and Baker as Santa Monica’s founders.

4th Street historical paver

Etched in concrete: Baker and Jones, but no Arcadia.

Maybe the omission from the DCP of one Latina from Santa Monica’s history is a small thing when the document is, after all, about the future not the past. Overall the DCP’s historical section (pp. 60-65) is a fair retelling of the booms and busts of downtown. The omission of Arcadia, however, strikes me as a melancholic symbol of how cramped our thinking today is about our future.

Santa Monica has always been a dynamic place, always changing, with residents willing to face the future with open and optimistic eyes. While to some extent the DCP itself acknowledges this history, it is, as I wrote previously, a political document, and the politics it responds to are the politics of fear.

Few experienced in their lifetimes more change than Arcadia. She was born on a Mexican rancho in 1827, and died in “L.A.” in 1912. Consider the changes Arcadia experienced and the challenges they must have created, and how she dealt with change and responded to challenges: namely, with foresight, industry, and optimism. (I suspect she was optimistic until the end, since she died without a will, setting off an epic battle over her estate!)

Compare the magnitude of the changes Arcadia confronted to the mere possibility of incremental, even trivial, changes today that cause so much fear and panic. How many times have we heard angry residents declare and demand they have a right not to have their city change from what they bought into 30 years before, when what’s on the table is a 5% increase in our housing stock over 20 years?

Think of how much time and money and angst have gone into the DCP, and before the DCP the LUCE, and we’re not yet done 13 years into the whole combined process. And for what? The DCP will affect only about 20% of the land in downtown, if that, and the political arguments are over the margins. Should the basic height limit be 60 feet, or 84? Should the Tier 2 FAR be 3.25 or 3.5? Should the threshold for development agreements be 60,000 square feet or 100,000? Should Tier 3 developments be allowed beyond a few blocks near the Expo station? Even the arguments over the “large” sites are small potatoes when looked at in the context of all of downtown.

It’s not like one side wants to dredge the harbor and bring back Jones’ and Huntington’s vision of a great port in Santa Monica Bay, and the other side wants to revert to grazing cattle. It’s not like one side wants to bring back Douglas Aircraft and Pacific Ocean Park, and the other side wants to close down the Promenade.

Unfortunately, the DCP reflects our politics by seeking a low common denominator. It’s no accident that Residocracy’s Armen Melkonians says he likes the plan. It’s a plan drafted to appease a minority of Santa Monicans who blindly fear change.

I say “blindly” because the anger is incoherent. As a result, responding to incoherence, the DCP lacks logic. The DCP aims to please people not with a logical vision for the future, but by shaving down reasonable development standards for no reason other than appeasement.

Why do I say the “No” element in Santa Monica politics is incoherent? Consider:

  • They oppose “boxy” apartment buildings, but want limits on height that will guarantee boxy buildings.
  • They oppose developers “slicing and dicing,” but want to kill large-site developments.
  • They oppose development agreements, but want a low threshold for when a developer needs one.
  • They oppose, most of all, traffic, but oppose housing development instead of traffic-generating commercial development, housing development that would reduce commuter traffic, and they oppose limiting parking, which would also reduce traffic.
  • They say they want to save water, but they fight the kind of development (infill housing as opposed to sprawl) that uses less water.
  • Most fundamentally, they oppose the way things are, but they also oppose change.

Thanks for reading.

Multiple Character Disorder

In my last post I wrote that it would take a lot of change in Santa Monica to change the city’s character. Since I wrote that I’ve been wondering what I meant.

I couldn’t have meant that Santa Monica wouldn’t change, because cities evolve and Santa Monica is no exception. Indeed, in the 140 years since its first developers, Messrs. Jones and Baker (enabled by Baker’s wife, the estimable Arcadia Bandini de Baker) subdivided the old rancho and sold their first lots, Santa Monica has changed over and over.

Santa Monica changed not only in actuality, but also in how people have imagined it. Often the reality and the image have had only a tenuous relationship, perhaps because the reality of the city emerged from an amalgam of two fundamentally different visions.

Jones and Baker wanted to make Santa Monica the region’s port, and they developed what became the north side of the city with business in mind. The original street grid between Colorado Avenue and Montana, with its large blocks, good-sized lots, and wide rights-of-way, was designed for development. Banks, office buildings, and stores were built continuously downtown until the crash in 1929. When Jones sold his Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to Collis Huntington, the line became the connection between the Southern Pacific’s Long Wharf and the nation. Along the railroad, industrialists built factories. Ultimately, Donald Douglas built one of the world’s largest industrial plants.

Meanwhile, a different kind of Santa Monica was developing south of downtown—a more sybaritic city. In the early years the magnificent Arcadia Hotel, located near today’s Tongva Park, was the big attraction. Then Abbott Kinney and his partners developed Ocean Park as a resort. The pleasure piers were built, arcades and baths, and little vacation homes.

Today when you hear competing narratives like “Silicon Beach” vs. “laidback beach town” you’re hearing a dialectic that has been fundamental to Santa Monica from the start. The descendants, actual or not, of old Santa Monica families who can’t understand why people are telling them they can’t develop their land, and those residents who can’t understand why anyone would consider desecrating Santa Monica by building anything over two stories, are all true, in their own fashions, to Santa Monica’s history.

When it comes to residential neighborhoods, Santa Monica also has two competing realities that engender different visions. It’s often mentioned that (unusual among well-off American towns) 70 percent of Santa Monica residents are renters. As a housing or neighborhood type, however, apartments don’t define Santa Monica because so much of the city is covered with single-family houses. Approximately 32 percent of all land in Santa Monica, and approximately 47 percent of land that is zoned residential, is zoned R1. Consequently many people conceptualize Santa Monica as a leafy suburb, an extension of Brentwood. You can see how they might believe that apartment buildings violate that suburban character, particularly if a developer proposes to build apartments on a boulevard near an R1 neighborhood.

People can visualize all they want, but the fact remains that 70 percent of Santa Monicans live in apartments, nearly all of which (along with quite a few condominiums) were built by developers. Given that reality, it’s at least incongruous to say that building more apartments and condos (within reason) would destroy the character of Santa Monica.

The flipside is also true—or, rather, untrue. Many residents celebrate the fact that because of its apartments Santa Monica is not a monolithic suburb and hosts a wide range of incomes. Some of these folks argue that allowing the building of luxury condominiums would alter the character of Santa Monica: make it too ritzy. But given the price of those houses in the 32 percent of Santa Monica zoned R1, it’s hard to say with a straight face that a few more rich people would turn Santa Monica into something it isn’t.

In fact, it’s hard to take any talk about the character of a city seriously. Character in this context is always a word that carries an agenda. There are so many characters to choose from, you can take your pick to support whatever point you want to make. Change is going to happen; to the extent we can control change, it’s better to make decisions based on what might be objectively determined to be good change, rather than base our decisions on something as subjective as a city’s character. It is possible to have progress, to improve things.

People don’t talk about a city’s character this way only in Santa Monica. Recently the New York Daily News ran an essay by Glynnis MacNicol about memory and a city—in that case the city being New York (“When I was young, so was New York”). MacNicol’s premise is that one’s view of what a city is depends on one’s first memories of it; as she puts it, “each of us mistakes the city we knew first with the city’s truest version of itself.”

We’d all be happier, I suspect, if whenever we started to talk about the city’s character, we would instead acknowledge that what we really wanted to talk about are our memories, especially the fond ones.

Thanks for reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.


Change is gonna come — no kidding

I don’t know about in your neighborhood, but in Ocean Park two “little free libraries” have popped up. These are boxes with roofs that hold books — people are free to take them to read, or they can drop off their own books for others to read.

Last week on a stroll I looked in one of them and grabbed a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, his 1943 mystery that takes place all over Southern California, from the mountains above San Bernardino to Bay City, Chandler’s stand-in for Santa Monica. (Not coincidentally, the book was a “Santa Monica Reads” selection in 2012.) It’s been too many decades since I’d read my Chandler, and I thought it was time to brush up.

Great read, and I was as much gripped by Chandler’s take on Bay City as I was with private eye Phillip Marlowe’s solving the mystery. There’s no question Chandler uses poetic license — for instance, Marlowe gets thrown into jail on the twelfth floor of Bay City’s new city hall, but here’s what Marlowe says when he’s in that city hall:

It was a very nice city hall. Bay City was very nice place. People lived there and thought so. If I lived there, I would probably think so. I would see the nice blue bay and the cliffs and the yacht harbor and the quiet streets of houses, old houses brooding under old trees and new houses with sharp green lawns and wire fences and staked saplings set into the parkway in front of them. I knew a girl who lived on Twenty-fifth Street. It was a nice street. She was a nice girl. She liked Bay City.

She wouldn’t think about the Mexican and Negro slums stretched out on the dismal flats south of the old interurban tracks. Nor of the waterfront dives along the flat shore south of the cliffs, the sweaty little dancehalls on the pike, the marihuana joints, the narrow fox faces watching over the tops of newspapers in far too quiet hotel lobbies, nor the pickpockets and grifters and con men and drunk rollers and pimps and queens on the board walk.

Hey, when he’s talking about “the flat shore south of the cliffs,” that’s my Ocean Park — but Marlowe wouldn’t recognize it today. The City urban renewed the dives and the dancehalls off the map in the ’50s. (Chandler might get a smile from the Green Cross “marihuana” dispensaries across the line in Venice.)

I’m posting this because it makes me wonder once again — just when was it that Santa Monica was this “sleepy beach town” I keep hearing about? Certainly not when Marlowe was getting sapped on the head by the Bay City cops, which was also when the Douglas plant in Sunset Park was one of the biggest factories in the world, and I can’t think of any decade since when that description fits.

Or maybe even more significant, whatever Santa Monica was at any given time, whatever beach town characteristics it had or still has, I can’t think of any decade when it didn’t undergo significant change. It was never one, static thing.

I don’t know how many readers are among the 8,413 members of the “You know you are from Santa Monica if” page on Facebook, but I love the posts on it — people remembering what Santa Monica was like back then, whenever then was. What astonishes me, even as someone who has lived here 30 years, is how change happens all the time — yet you never quite perceive it. You can’t stick your hand in the same river.

Think of it — in the ’50s and ’60s came the big housing boom when thousands of apartments were built and Santa Monica reached its current population; the ’60s were when the freeway came in, and downtown Santa Monica declined, even after the City built parking structures and turned Third Street into a pedestrian mall; the ’70s were when, after Douglas Aircraft closed, Santa Monica’s economy began its move from manufacturing into offices, and office towers were built downtown; the ’80s were when new hotels were built, the Third Street Promenade opened, and single-family bungalows started selling to be torn down for mini-mansions; the ’90s were when the Promenade’s success remade downtown, and big office parks were built in the old industrial corridor.

Think about today, when the city continues to evolve. And, of course, the region around the city changes, too. And why not — as cities go, we’re young.

I can’t authoritatively say what form change should take, but I can authoritatively say that change will come because it has always done so, often in ways people don’t expect. One can’t argue against change by saying that there was ever an unchanging city.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica and Santa Barbara: Not the Same

The policy of mixing market-rate housing with affordable housing has been not only accepted wisdom nationwide since the debacles that standalone public housing created in the ’50s and ’60s, but also a policy goal in Santa Monica for a long time. Santa Monica voters enacted Prop. R in 1990 to require that 30% of all housing in the city be affordable and from the first ordinance that implemented the law Santa Monica has pushed the goal of building affordable housing with, or in close proximity to, market rate housing.

Surprisingly this “inclusionary” policy was challenged last week in a column, “Community benefits do nothing for the community,” from the “Our Town” collective at the Daily Press. In the column, Our Town writer Ellen Brennan argued that mixing low-income and luxury housing is “not a recipe for healthy neighborhoods.”

But maybe Brennan’s opposition to inclusionary housing is not surprising because in the column she also blasts three council members backed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) for pushing for more development downtown because they believe in a SMRR “dogma” in favor of building affordable housing.

Note to Brennan: affordable housing is not dogma in Santa Monica, it’s the law, and it’s the law because the people passed Prop. R. And then in 1998 they passed another measure authorizing Santa Monica to spend money building affordable housing, and in the latest opinion survey Santa Monicans said that affordable housing was the top community benefit they wanted to see from development.

Before I criticize Brennan’s column more, however, let me say that I have a lot of respect for her. We’ve even agreed occasionally, and in any case she’s been an articulate and gracious participant in Santa Monica politics, which prompts a relevant digression.

Which is that readers may detect a trend. In the blog I posted last week I also took pains before disagreeing with Denny Zane and Mike Feinstein to say admiring things about them. You might be thinking, “Oh, Gruber, he’s just trying to make nice to people he’s going to bump into on the street.” Or worse, “Gruber – typical politician.” In fact there’s a substantive point I want to make, which is that despite the hyperbole to the point of vitriol and the wild accusations that can fly around (welcome to local politics anywhere), the level of discourse in Santa Monica is high. There are always intelligent and articulate people on all sides of any issue, and over the decades Santa Monica has been a well-governed and progressive city because people listen to each other and make compromises. It helps that anyone who gets involved in more than one issue knows that the person you’re violently disagreeing with today about X is your ally tomorrow about Y.

I say that this is a relevant digression because what’s happening in Santa Monica lately (although not by any means for the first time) is that the rhetoric has become the lead story, not the underlying decisions that have to be made. People are focusing on the box, not what’s in the box (let alone what’s outside the box).

Okay, end of digression, and having said that, I’ll say right away that I disagree with nearly every word of Brennan’s column.

Why? Because Brennan bases her reasoning on a false understanding of what Santa Monica is.

I first became acquainted with Brennan in the ’90s when I was on the Planning Commission. One night the issue before the commission was the hours of operation for Pacific Park on the rebuilt Pier: the amusement park wanted to extend its hours to later at night. Brennan appeared before the commission in opposition; she told us that she had moved two years previously to an apartment across from the Pier, and that she had expected that living on the beach there would be like Mendocino.

Mendocino? I remember wondering to myself, “When she looked at the apartment, did she notice the Pier? Or did she turn around to see a whole region that for a century or so had considered the sand in front of her apartment its favorite beach?


A few weeks ago Brennan appeared before City Council – the issue was the Downtown Specific Plan – to complain that on a recent Saturday afternoon she had encountered terrible traffic and difficulty parking when she tried to use her car to accomplish a few errands downtown.

Hmmm. For getting onto a century Santa Monica has been a place where on a beautiful Saturday afternoon 500,000 people are going to be here. That’s what Santa Monica has been, is, and will always be. If you live near the beach summer Saturdays are not good days to drive to the bank and the grocery store.

Not only is Santa Monica the favorite beach for 10 million people, but its history also includes being a would-be great port with mile-long wharf, an industrial center with one of the world’s largest factories, a medical center with two big hospitals, a corporate office center (including a 300-foot high tower built for a phone company’s headquarters), etc. These are all histories not shared with any real or hypothetical sleepy beach town that Santa Monica isn’t.

In fact, the main thing that Santa Monica shares with Santa Barbara is traffic congestion (and complaints about it). Try visiting Santa Barbara on a nice weekend.

Thanks for reading.

Fact: for 20 Years There has been Little Development in Santa Monica

I’m still thinking about that big meeting a week ago Monday on downtown development.

When planning staffer Francie Stefan was describing, in remarks before the microphone was opened to the public, the process to write a specific plan for downtown she observed that there had been no office buildings constructed in downtown Santa Monica for 20 years.

When I heard that I thought to myself, it’s not only downtown, but there’s been little office development anywhere in Santa Monica since the Water Garden went up about 20 years ago. Since then the 194,000-square foot expansion of Lantana on Olympic Boulevard has been the only significant new office development. Yes, there have been rebuilds of existing buildings, such as with Agensys, but very little else.

Contrary to what everyone seems to believe, for 20 years there has been hardly any commercial development in Santa Monica and barely enough housing development to make a dent in the huge housing deficit on the entire Westside.

Sure, you see a lot of construction, but think about what it is — other than housing (with a little retail on the ground floors) the construction has been mostly to replace older buildings. There has been little net new commercial development.

The biggest private projects have been the new buildings for St. John’s and UCLA Santa Monica hospitals, but those mostly replaced buildings destroyed or damaged in the Northridge Earthquake. (In fact, when completed the new St. John’s will be smaller than what it was before the earthquake.) The re-do of Santa Monica Place was just that, a re-do. No large new hotels have been built since the Loew’s and Le Merigot — the new Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue replaced (and expanded somewhat on) two old hotels. Apple replaced Borders. RAND replaced its old buildings with a new building of about the same size (300,000 square feet) — even though under the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan the think tank could have built another 200,000.

There have also been public projects like the new public safety headquarters, and of course the biggest construction project in years is now underway — bringing the Expo line to Santa Monica.

To the extent that traffic congestion has increased at certain times and in certain directions over the past 10 years relates much more to economic growth over the entire 405 corridor than any purported “massive overdevelopment” in Santa Monica (although certainly the time and place of the congestion relates to the commuting pattern into the city).

City Council and planning staff have not sold the city to developers.

We all benefit from the overall thoughtful and careful approach to development that Santa Monica has had for 30 years. Sure, it could have been even more thoughtful and careful — if the 9 million square feet of office development approved in the ’80s had been split 50-50 between offices and housing, we’d all be better off. But we’re not going to fix that imbalance by preventing housing development now.

Fortunately, housing is where the development market is now in Santa Monica. The development agreement projects proposed not only for downtown but throughout the city are mainly for housing, including the condo developments associated with the hotel projects and the affordable housing tied to them. I know it is hard to persuade people of this, but new housing in Santa Monica has only a small impact, and possibly a net positive impact, on traffic congestion. Increasing the number of housing units by 10% (5,000 units) as the LUCE contemplates will not affect traffic significantly.

To solve transportation problems and make good use of our investments in transit, we need more housing near jobs. Council Member Kevin McKeown expressed this succinctly in yesterday’s Daily Press: “The number one antidote to the ‘commute and pollute’ problem is proximity. Putting worker-affordable housing near jobs makes the use of mass transit more likely, and in some cases can mean walking or biking to work.”

The housing market is a continuum that runs in Santa Monica from luxury condos to SROs for people who would otherwise be homeless: from Ocean Avenue condos to Step Up on Second, and everything in between.  We need housing at all income levels, because at every point along the continuum housing is fungible: a shortage of housing will turn middle-class housing into upper-class housing and working-class housing into middle-class housing, and so on.

Put another way, if we want Santa Monica’s empty-nesters to sell their houses to the next generation of families, and if we want those empty-nesters to stay in Santa Monica, we need to build condos for them to buy or apartments for them to rent. It’s easy to say that the high-end market for housing will take care of itself, and certainly no one will go homeless directly if there isn’t a condo to buy at the Miramar or in the Frank Gehry tower, but developers can’t build any kind of housing unless they have permission to do so.

Thanks for reading. (By the way, you may not hear from me for a while — I’ll be on vacation until the beginning of June.)

“Leo” at the Broad and history that repeats

I’m rushing to get this posted this Sunday morning to alert any readers who don’t have plans this afternoon that they should try to get tickets to see “LEO” at the Broad Stage in one of its two remaining performances (at 1:00 and 4:00). My wife and I saw it last night and we were mesmerized. I mean it’s not every day that you see gravity turned 90 degrees.

Whenever I attend an event at the Broad, which is part (the biggest part) of the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, I can’t help but think about Santa Monica politics, because ten or so years ago the small theater (about 500 seats) was a political football. A few nearby neighbors worried that it would generate traffic, some saying it was out of scale and would destroy the neighborhood, and most of the City Council opposed building it. (This was in the context of overall difficult relations between the City and the College at the time, which fortunately are much better today.)

Yesterday I was also thinking historically for other reasons, and not only because I’ve written a couple of posts recently on recent history in Santa Monica in response to the Jeff Tumlin affair. But I was with some people involved in local politics and the general consensus was that never had public anger been so great about development.

As I left the Broad last night I thought about this and I realized I had to disagree. I only became involved in politics here in the early ’90s and so I missed all the “important stuff” in the late ’70s and ’80s when Santa Monica politics fundamentally changed with rent control and the initial moratorium on development and down-zoning and the ban on hotels along the beach, but even in the ’90s I’d say that the anti-development arguments were more strident than today.

Today at least the anti-development energies are focused on big projects, or a large accumulation of smaller projects. One can agree or disagree, either in general or on a project-by-project basis, but there’s nothing irrational about being concerned about 35 projects in the development agreement pipeline.

Contrast that with the ’90s, when I first became involved in local politics as a member of the Board of Directors of the Ocean Park Community Organization. Yes, there was a big project, the Civic Center Plan, that was controversial, and after the earthquake there was the rebuilding of St. John’s Hospital that was the focus for much debate (but did anyone think that the hospital shouldn’t be rebuilt?), but what I remember vividly about the ’90s were long public battles that seem incomprehensible now: like whether to build a new elementary school in Ocean Park (for John Muir and SMASH), or build the Project New Hope AIDS housing on Ocean Avenue, or the Ralph’s Market on Olympic. And after those, the Broad Stage controversy.

I recall some of the people who opposed those projects and some of the rhetoric, and let me say — it was a colorful time.

As I said, I only became involved about 20 years ago, and I never considered myself an old-timer, but I’m starting to think of myself that way. A lot of people only now becoming involved in Santa Monica politics act as if they are raising concerns that have never been of concern to anyone before. But when you study history, you find out that it’s often repeated.

Apparently History Matters

In its open letter denouncing Jeff Tumlin, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) not only objected to his use of the term “NIMBY” to describe the anti-development faction of Santa Monica politics, but also took issue with the statement in his bio that, “[f]or decades, Santa Monica politics had been dominated by NIMBYs…”

The SMCLC claimed that Tumlin was “dead wrong” about this, explaining that:

The development history of Santa Monica is one of rapid growth, with over nine million square feet of new development added during the period Mr. Tumlin cites. (Which greatly exceeded our 1984 General Plan.) No one can reasonably say that “NIMBYs” have stopped development in Santa Monica or “dominated” Santa Monica politics.

So history is not bunk after all; it’s important. Who is right, Jeff Tumlin or the SMCLC? I’d say there is some truth in both statements, but overall, both sides choose the trees they want to look at and miss the forest.

Has, as the SMCLC says, the development history of Santa Monica been “one of rapid growth?” Certainly from a perspective going back to 1875, or even 1940, the answer is yes, but Santa Monica’s growth since 1960, especially compared to that of the surrounding region, has not been rapid. Santa Monica’s population is roughly the same now as it was 50 years ago, while the population of Los Angeles during that time increased about 60%.

During those years, though, Santa Monica’s economy evolved from manufacturing-based (in the ’50s, Douglas Aircraft alone employed about 20,000 workers) to offices, and offices generally generate more employees per acre than factories. Santa Monica became even more of a jobs center. But again, the development of the formerly empty areas surrounding Santa Monica was much more “rapid.” (Think Century City, Westwood, and the Sepulveda, Wilshire and Olympic corridors — much more and faster development there than in Santa Monica.)

True, as the SMCLC says, Santa Monica approved 9 million square feet of office development (when the 1984 plan had predicted 4.5 million), but it wasn’t “during the period Mr. Tumlin cites” – it was in the ’80s, 25 years ago, not in the period he’s referring to (the period before the City hired his firm to work on the LUCE).

It was in reaction to those approvals in the late ’80s that a specifically anti-development faction appeared in Santa Monica politics, but it’s important to remember that when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981 it immediately “confronted the Growth Machine” (as described by William Fulton in the first chapter of his The Reluctant Metropolis). SMRR instituted a moratorium over development and ultimately enacted major down-zonings. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits the city gained from these actions. That’s why I say that in Santa Monica we’re all anti-development — I don’t know anyone in Santa Monica politics who doesn’t believe those down-zonings were successful.

All the subsequent fighting between the anti-development faction that emerged in the late ’80s and the traditional progressive wing of SMRR and other elements in Santa Monica politics that see the need for and benefits that can be obtained from development has to do with whether one believes that the down-zoned limits on development provide a good basic framework for development or if one believes that they are only a starting point for further reductions in allowable development.

Which brings us to the SMCLC’s question: can anyone “reasonably say that ‘NIMBYs’ have stopped development in Santa Monica or ‘dominated’ Santa Monica politics”?

My answer is yes and no.

The fact is, hard as it is to believe, that since construction of the Water Garden, the last of those 9,000,000 square feet, only one significant new office development has been built in Santa Monica; that was the Lantana project on Olympic (which totaled about 250,000 square feet of new development).

In the mid-90s Santa Monica began to experience growth in the housing sector, mostly downtown, but one can’t entirely attribute that growth to decisions made locally. The City lost a lawsuit in the early ’90s over its housing policies: the courts found that they were too restrictive. California also passed laws requiring cities to make the building of housing easier. As a result, the City had to liberalize its housing policies, regardless of local politics (although many Santa Monicans believe this was good policy anyway). Since then Santa Monica has seen considerable housing development, nearly all of it in commercial zones.

But housing development in Santa Monica (in commercial zones) has not been as controversial as commercial development; even the SMCLC’s signature piece of proposed legislation, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (later known as Measure T), did not limit residential projects.

As I see it, for 20 years Santa Monica has followed, in the big picture, sensible development policies: it has drastically reduced office development (which contributes the most to traffic congestion) and it has given the housing sector some time to catch up to the over-building of offices.

While Jeff Tumlin was incorrect to write that “NIMBYs” dominated Santa Monica politics (especially not “for decades”), those in the anti-development faction don’t comprehend how successful they have been. I find myself often telling my anti-development friends (and yes, I have them) that they should cheer up: they’ve won most of the battles.

But they don’t feel cheerful. That’s because the pendulum swings. The anti-development wave hit its high-water mark in 1999, when, with the election of Richard Bloom to City Council there was for the first time a majority on City Council from SMRR’s anti-development wing. For a brief period the anti-development faction “dominated,” but the anti-development majority began to fragment in 2001 when Ken Genser voted in favor of Target. The wave crested in 2003 when Michael Feinstein cast the decisive vote not to reappoint Kelly Olsen to the Planning Commission and by the middle of the decade most of the anti-development council members had found that a strict anti-development stance didn’t work. The LUCE process began in 2004 and for six years dominated land use politics. Now a backlog of projects fills the pipeline, and the anti-development faction feels beleaguered.

Let’s hope that everyone will stop calling each other names and start talking to each other about a Santa Monica version of “bipartisan” solutions. Growth and change are going to happen, and we need to channel those energies into productive results that are good for everyone.

Thanks for reading.