Moving goal posts and new players: the plight of anti-development politicians

After last night’s City Council meeting Councilmember Sue Himmelrich might understandably have a “no good deed goes unpunished” feeling. You see, Himmelrich proposed that council direct staff to prepare a ballot measure for November that would be an alternative to Residocracy’s LUVE initiative. Himmelrich, whom Residocracy endorsed when she ran for council in 2014, proposed a measure that would give voters the right to approve large projects, but one that would not be as draconian as LUVE and therefore (presumably) have a better chance of passing. Residocracy, however, slammed her and her proposal even before the meeting began.

On Monday, on Residocracy’s Facebook page, Residocracy’s Tricia Crane derided Himmelrich’s proposal, calling it “an attempt to confuse voters,” and one that showed the “desperation” of councilmembers (presumably Himmelrich) “to retain power and defeat the LUVE initiative.” Ouch. (Later Crane, I suppose to make sure her sentiments were not limited to Facebook users, forwarded the Facebook exchange to her neighborhood group, Northeast Neighbors—that email must have gone viral, because even I received it.)

Crane was right about the potential confusion. (If not about Himmelrich’s motivations, which seem sincere.) As pointed out last night by, of all people, Residocracy-nemesis Councilmember Terry O’Day, having two similar measures on the ballot would create confusion. If the anti-development vote were split, probably both would lose. The cynical thing would have been if the councilmembers opposed by Residocracy had supported Himmelrich’s motion. (Neither they nor any other councilmembers did, and the motion died without a second.)

As for Crane’s attack on Himmelrich, the first-term councilmember is not the first anti-development politician to engage the wrath of anti-development constituents feeling scorned. Even Councilmember Kevin McKeown, over many years the most consistent anti-development voice in Santa Monica politics, is now enduring nasty attacks because of his opposition to LUVE.

There’s a pattern. History repeats. (Not sure just when the attacks might have been tragic, but certainly, with the attacks on McKeown and Himmelrich, we’ve now reached farce.) For reasons that I’ll get into below, at some point anti-development politicians and their anti-development constituents tend to part ways. Consider what happened the first time Santa Monica elected a City Council majority consisting of members who had all been elected with anti-development support.

That was in 1999, when after a special election Richard Bloom joined councilmembers McKeown, Michael Feinstein, and the late Ken Genser, all of whom had been elected with anti-development support. In short order the four proceeded to replace the entire Planning Commission with anti-development activists drawn from neighborhood associations. Long-term planning in the City came to a stop, as the new commissioners, led by former councilmember Kelly Olsen, browbeat planning staff, whom they accused of being in the pocket of developers.

But the anti-development majority began to fall apart in 2001 when Genser, Santa Monica’s original anti-development councilmember, voted in favor of Target; the other three were opposed. Then in 2003 Feinstein infuriated the anti-development side by voting against reappointing Olsen to the Planning Commission. Not entirely coincidentally, Feinstein lost his bid for reelection in 2004.

As for Bloom (today, of course, Assembly Member Bloom), his views evolved as he became more involved with social and environmental issues. Although Bloom’s original political base was among anti-development homeowners in Sunset Park, by 2005 or so he had become a strong supporter of housing and economic development. By 2008, both Bloom and Genser opposed the RIFT initiative, and were on the outs with their original anti-development supporters.

So why do anti-development councilmembers and their constituents become estranged? The anti-development side will tell you it’s because all politicians are corrupt and ultimately get bought off by developers, but empirically that’s not true. The real reasons are more complex.

Briefly put, when it comes to the goals of the anti-development side, as soon as one goal is achieved, a new, more extreme goal is created. In Santa Monica, where everyone involved in politics wants to regulate development to some extent (we’re all Democrats, right?), this means that a politician elected on a platform advocating one level of regulation soon finds, after voting for regulating development at that level, that some aggrieved constituents want him or her now to adopt higher levels of regulation, levels that the politician might not be comfortable with, whether because he or she is aware of legal restrictions or simply because he or she doesn’t want to go that far in preventing change.

Consider what’s going on now. In 2004 City Council began the LUCE process, and responded to anti-development sentiment (i) by pushing nearly all new development into commercial and industrial districts comprising a small fraction of the City’s land area (a good idea) and (ii) by making nearly all significant development discretionary (not such a good idea). In 2010 the LUCE was finally adopted—with the support of the anti-development community.

But when, a few years later, City staff was drafting the new zoning ordinance, suddenly there was a new target: the largest projects allowed under LUCE, discretionary projects called “Tier 3.” Last year when the zoning ordinance finally came to a vote, the new anti-development majority (McKeown, Himmelrich, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer) voted to eliminate nearly all Tier 3 projects.

McKeown, Himmelrich, Vazquez and Winterer retained, however, LUCE’s Tier 2, the zoning standard that allows the continued building of the kind of housing (apartments over ground floor retail) that has been the standard in Santa Monica since the ’90s. Moreover, the four have voted several times to approve more of these apartments. These votes have infuriated the extreme anti-development element represented by Residocracy, i.e., those Santa Monicans who insist that new apartments are incompatible with the character of a city that is 70% renter. Which is why Residocracy has now brought forward LUVE, which would for all practical purposes eliminate Tier 2.

So there you have it, anti-development mission creep: limit development to commercial areas and make nearly all of it discretionary; eliminate Tier 3; eliminate Tier 2. If you don’t follow us every step, you’re a paid stooge for developers.

There’s another factor, too: the constant entry of new people into the political process from the anti-development side, people who don’t necessarily have knowledge of the anti-development battles that preceded their involvement. Ten years ago, after more than 25 years of anti-development politics (and policies, many good, to control growth), the new group in town was the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. SMCLC, acting as if no one had ever noticed traffic before, came up with the RIFT initiative in 2008, but SMCLC now takes a backseat as Residocracy drives the agenda. It’s telling that the three key leaders of Residocracy—spec mansion developer Armen Melkonians, North of Montana realtor Kate Bransfeld, and Tricia Crane, who formerly directed her activism to the School District’s special education programs—did not participate in any significant way in local development politics until three or four years ago.

It’s this combination of shifting goal posts and new players, not developer money, that causes the inevitable disconnect between anti-development politicians and their original anti-development base.

Thanks for reading.

Rejoice. Our long municipal nightmare is (almost) over.

Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will likely make the final substantive decisions on the update to the City’s zoning laws. The update process began in 2010, when the council passed new land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) of the general plan, and the new zoning was intended to implement the LUCE. It’s been a slog, and instead of a bang, the whole thing is ending in a desultory whimper. No one seems happy—neither those who want more housing built, nor the Residocracy folks who are threatening a referendum to overturn the new law.

Nonetheless you can be happy about something. Our long municipal nightmare is over. It’s been eleven long years since work began on the LUCE, but when the council (in June) gives the zoning ordinance its final blessing we will finally have new land use policies in place for most of the city.

Yes, it’s taken eleven years, three city managers and three planning directors, but, to borrow another metaphor from a certain era, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think about it. It took a little city of 90,000 people eleven years to figure out how the city should evolve for about 20 years. And Washington is gridlocked?

I remember when this all began, in 2004. Back then Councilmember Pam O’Connor voted to begin the LUCE process only when staff assured the council it would take only two years. It should have taken only two years, since it was obvious that there were only two places to put new development, in the old industrial areas and on the boulevards. But with LUCE we managed to spend a few years analyzing “opportunities and challenges” and discovering “emerging themes.”

The process was at times poetic, and the best parts of the LUCE are poetic, but now the poetry has either been obliterated by events or is being removed from the LUCE with the nodding approval of those who were supposed to have believed in the LUCE the most: planning staff and councilmembers who voted for it. Plans to turn the industrial areas into vibrant neighborhoods are dead with the reoccupying of the Paper Mate site. With staff and a majority of councilmembers agreeing to remove Tier 3 and activity centers from most of the boulevards, we’re not going to get anything on the boulevards beyond box retail, two-story office buildings, and generic apartment buildings. What’s left in the LUCE? Not much that justified a six-year visioning process.

(The most disheatening aspect of the whole thing is the capitulation by planning staff. In tomorrow night’s staff report someone had the poor taste to remind everyone that the purpose of the activity centers was to “foster dynamic spaces by enabling the creation of mixed-use development at transportation crossroads on parcels of sufficient size to support creative design and to provide active and passive open space, affordable and market-rate housing, and shared parking facilities.” All of this “poetry” would, of course, only come after a process, called an area plan, to make sure that anything built would be appropriate for the context. But staff and a majority of councilmembers no longer trust themselves or their future replacements to do good planning, and they’ve caved, throwing activity centers out because they might allow development “that could be considered significantly out of scale.” Anything “could be.” Eleven years take their toll, but this is embarrassing.)

For all that’s left of the LUCE, the City could have accomplished just as much by drafting a specific plan for the industrial areas and by updating the zoning on the boulevards within the parameters of the old land use element. As for protecting the neighborhoods, little development was going on in the neighborhoods in 2004 and despite fears and fear mongering little is happening now. Why? It’s ironic, but ever since Costa-Hawkins went into effect in 1999 use of the Ellis Act to tear down old apartments has drastically decreased as apartment owners opt to charge higher rents when vacancies occur, upgrading when they can make money doing so. And the LUCE didn’t even deal with downtown—we’re still in the midst of that specific plan. A new circulation element? That could have been done separately.

But—at least it’s over, right? Hmmm. The LUCE is supposed to last until 2030. If it takes eleven years to update a land use element and draft a zoning ordinance, does that mean we need to start the whole thing again in 2019?

Thanks for reading.