LV: I take it personal

Over the weekend my son Henry wrote a note to his Facebook friends explaining why he felt so personally threatened by the candidacy of Donald Trump. Henry, who is getting a Ph.D. in Ancient History at an Ivy League university, has no personal reason to worry about Trump. He has a lot of “privilege,” which he’s well aware of, and he’s not going to need an abortion.

What he wrote was that he feels, however, that Trump is attacking him personally because Trump attacks the kind of place where he grew up, namely Santa Monica, part of greater Los Angeles, a dynamic, multi-ethnic metropolis. In his words, Henry “grew up in the America that Republicans fear, the America that Donald Trump attacks.”

Henry’s piece made me reflect on why I am viscerally opposed to Measure LV, here in Santa Monica. I’ve been writing about LV the past few weeks, focusing on the policy and political issues. Dry stuff. But as I thought about it, much of my reaction to LV comes not from my policy wonk side, but from my personal experience.

I consider LV an attack on two generations of Grubers: my father and my son.

Why? Well, as for my father, as my parents crossed into their eighties, they were living in Philadelphia, far from any of their three children. They were “getting up there,” but as always they were cleared-eyed about the future. They knew they would need help.

Based on new zoning Santa Monica had adopted for downtown in the ’90s, for the first time developers were building apartments downtown on land zoned commercial. I wrote a column about the new apartments after seeing a billboard advertising them. My folks read the column and asked me about moving here, into one of them. I encouraged them to do so, and in 2003 they became the first tenants in a new building on Sixth Street, a little north of Colorado.

The proponents of LV despise the apartments that have gone up in downtown Santa Monica over the past 20 years. They say they ruin the character of Santa Monica. But to my parents that apartment on Sixth Street has been a godsend. My mother died in 2007, but my father still lives there. At 95 he doesn’t get out much, and he has nearly 24-hour care, but the apartment has preserved his way of life.

The apartment has been a godsend for me, too. The apartment is three blocks from my office, and I have lunch with Dad three or four times a week, and brunch on Sunday. We go out to dinner often—one of our favorite places is a Japanese place, Ninjin, around the corner. I can’t imagine how things would have worked out if my parents couldn’t have moved here.

What about the other Gruber generation, i.e., Henry, that I say LV attacks? At some point in the hopefully not-to-distant future Henry is going to have his Ph.D. and, assuming universities are still teaching about the Romans, he’s going to be looking for a job. Little would make him happier than to get one in L.A.—because he loves L.A. and he’d love to raise his family in Santa Monica. Fortunately, there are many terrific colleges and universities here that might hire him.

But let’s face it—a generation ago, when many of the proponents of LV were buying their houses, a college professor could afford a house in Santa Monica, but today? Forget it: if you’re young and you’re not a tech millionaire, how are you going to buy a house here?

Okay, but Henry is “urban” enough that, like many in his generation, maybe he doesn’t need a single-family house. What about a condo, or a nice apartment? Under LV, those aren’t going to be built in Santa Monica. The City already, rightfully, does a lot to preserve our residential neighborhoods, and little will built in them. Our new zoning thoughtfully directs new housing to commercial zones, like along the boulevards and downtown, and on former industrial lands, where no residents are displaced and connections to transit are usually good.

LV, by design (its author, Armen Melkonians, told the City Council that Santa Monica doesn’t need more housing) will prevent that kind of housing from being built.

In the name of preserving the character of Santa Monica, a character that has been evolving for a century, and a character that for 60 years or so has seen most of the city’s population live in apartments, the proponents of LV wish my Dad’s apartment had never been built and wish that a future home for my son, a son of Santa Monica, will never be built.

Sorry if I take it personally, but LV is an abuse of the character of our city.

Please Vote No on LV.

Thanks for reading.

Truth and “The Truth We Know”

This week the Yes on LV campaign has distributed a flyer that itemizes the “lies” that the Yes campaign claims the No on LV campaigns have been saying about LV. The headline is “Don’t be Fooled by the Developers’ Lies!” The flyer has two columns, one listing the purported lies, and one listing the purported truths.

lv-flyer-column-heads

The wording of the second heading, “The Truth We Know,” is interesting.

Why isn’t the heading simply “The Truth”? If something is true, does it have to be qualified with “We Know”? Is a truth more true depending on whether we (or anyone else) know it? The answer is . . . no. Truth doesn’t depend on who knows it.

The use of “The Truth We Know” says something about the entire campaign for LV. LV and the support for it is all based on what the drafters and proponents of LV know, regardless whether what they know conforms with reality. When confronted with data that shows, for instance, that Santa Monica has limited development for 25 years, or with plain evidence, for instance, that City Council members do not always give developers what they want, or with eleven years of community process developing planning documents that carefully channel and restrict development, the LV supporters shake their heads: they know that the City Council gives developers whatever they want.

“Forget the birth certificate, we know he was born in Kenya.”

As it happens, though, most of the back-and-forth over what’s true in the campaign has to do with issues that are peripheral to the mess that LV would create. Take the contentious issues whether LV would require public votes on rebuilds of taller than 32-foot buildings after an earthquake, or on construction of various public buildings. Clearly it was an oversight that LV does not include exemptions for post-disaster rebuilds, etc., but even if LV included them, LV would still be a terrible way to plan the future of Santa Monica. But the No on LV campaign has made a big deal about these oversights because, let’s face it, LV looks pretty dumb because it doesn’t have them.

(I know that the LV campaign has a letter from the lawyer who drafted LV saying that LV does not conflict with the City ordinance that allows for rebuilds after disasters, but I’ve read that letter and it’s a classic case of “oops, let me try to cover my ass.” The lawyer tries to use language referring to “new development” in the pre-existing zoning law to make the argument that LV doesn’t apply to reconstruction, but that language is obviously superseded by LV language that applies the requirement for a public vote to “any project that exceeds the Tier 1 maximum limits.”)

It all gets back to “The Truth We Know.” The lawyer who drafted LV and her clients at Residocracy presumably know that LV contains a clause that gives LV priority over any existing law, including the one that allows for post-disaster rebuilds. Was she lying in her opinion letter, and were they lying in their flyer, when they wrote that the existing law would prevail over LV? I don’t think so. “Lying” requires a positive belief that one is not telling the truth, and by now it’s fairly clear that the Residocracy folks know what the truth is without caring about it. They know that the existing rebuild law would not conflict with LV, and for them that’s the truth.

For the rest of us, at least for those of us who follow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, what they’re saying isn’t the truth or a lie, it’s bullshit, because they don’t care if it’s true or false.

But then, bullshit is not unexpected or even out of place in politics. I haven’t reviewed all of the No on LV arguments, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the No campaigns have pushed arguments that are just that, arguments. Politics is an art, not a science.

But the Residocracy camp, which is responsible for LV in the first place, can’t complain when their outrage provokes more outrage (and more than $1 million of spending). It was their idea. To bring this to the first-grader level where it belongs, “they started it.”

They also can’t complain because their campaign is entirely based—every signature they got is based—on a huge, steaming pile of bullshit, namely that LV is an answer to traffic congestion.

“Tired of Traffic,” their lawn signs say, and I can’t improve on what former Planning Commission Chair Hank Koning wrote in a Daily Press guest column yesterday in response to that slogan. As I’ve written before, LV won’t stop development, instead it will channel it into by-right, get-the-permit-at-the-planning-desk, office and retail projects that fit into the Tier 1 envelope. These projects will provide no community benefits and they will create more traffic than the larger residential projects that LV will prevent from being built.

Architects tell me that this is happening already, as their clients are tired of multi-year contentious permitting processes, and instead building two-story office and retail projects. For instance, here’s a photo of the retail and office building going up now at Fourth and Broadway; originally, a mixed-use residential project was planned for this site.

4th-broadway-nov-2016

As for how much more traffic commercial projects generate, when it comes to research, I’m lazy, but Koning isn’t, and here are the numbers from his column:

[T]he 2 story, all-commercial option generates more traffic than the 4 story, mixed-use housing over retail. How is that possible? Let’s look at the Santa Monica PM peak hour trip generation rates for different uses per 1,000 [square feet]: Multi-Family Housing, 0.33 trips; Retail, 3.01; Office, 1.08; Medical Office, 2.98 (Santa Monica Transportation Impact fee nexus study April 2012).

In terms of traffic generated, it takes 3.27 floors of housing to equal 1 floor of office, and a whopping 9.12 floors of housing to equal a second floor of retail.

And you know what? We all know that these data confirm our own experiences, as we know that that more people enter and leave commercial buildings everyday than enter and leave residences.

Koning goes on to point out that in jobs rich Santa Monica, many of the new residents will have jobs here, and having them living here will reduce commutes into Santa Monica. By definition, since they will be residents, even if they commute to jobs outside of Santa Monica they will not contribute to Santa Monica’s worst traffic—commuters coming into the city in the morning and leaving in the afternoon.

What people in the no-growth community don’t understand is that people in the pro-urban community hate traffic more than they do. We not only hate being caught in traffic, we believe it’s a crummy way to live to be encased in steel for so much of the day, isolated from the community. We’re trying to reduce traffic, not only traffic congestion. The old ways you cling to increase both.

Thanks for reading.

Capitalists to the barricades!

This is another in my series of posts about the rationalizations that otherwise liberal voters use for supporting Measure LV. Of all of them, the one that is probably the most effective with voters tuning-in late to the issue is that LV must be progressive because those arch-capitalists, developers, are against it and spending big money to defeat it.

The reason is that after a century of ballot box governance Californians evaluate ballot measures by looking at “who’s for an’ who’s again’ ’em.” We all know that if tobacco companies or oil companies are against a measure, that tells you a lot.

With a progressive electorate here in Santa Monica, it’s always a bad sign if someone is going to make money one way or another. Although it’s generally okay here to make money producing movies, nearly every other capitalistic enterprise is suspect. The supporters of LV have made a big deal about developer profits, as anti-development activists have done for years. They’re constantly invoking the “greed” of developers, and they loudly denounce anyone who supports the building of anything as being “in the pocket of” developers.

But there’s no secret why developers are spending money to defeat LV. It’s because LV would put them out of business in Santa Monica. None of them are going to spend three or four years developing a project, only to put it up against the crapshoot of an election.

Say you had a business; what would you spend against a ballot measure that would close you down? Take this example: one of the founders of Residocracy is local realtor Kate Bransfield. What if residents, upset with how much they have to pay realtors when they sell their now multi-million dollar homes, put a measure on the ballot that would cap commissions at one half of one percent of selling price?

After all, back when homes in Santa Monica were bungalows owned by Douglas workers, realtors didn’t make nearly so much money. Realtors must be greedy if they want full commissions on the inflated prices of houses now. That money would better go into the retirement fund of the seller.

If such a measure got on the ballot, how much money do you think Bransfield and her fellow realtors would spend to defeat it?

Or here’s another example. Phil Brock, now a write-in candidate for City Council, last week wrote a S.M.a.r.t. piece for the Mirror (tellingly titled, “The Alchemy of Greed”) all about how developer “robber barons” had taken over Santa Monica, how they were spending big to defeat LV, and how voters had to pass LV to stop them. Brock’s day-job is running a talent agency, and presumably he runs it to make a profit. What if there were a statewide measure that would reduce talent agency commissions from the current regulated level of 10% to 5%? How much do you think Brock and his fellow agents would spend to defeat that?

It’s the shortage of housing in California that makes real estate development so profitable today, and the regulatory environment, including measures like LV, that make it so risky. It’s a perfect example of the risk/reward ratio in action. In America we rely on the capital raised by capitalists to build most housing, so if you get rid of developers, you’d better come up with a completely different system to house a growing population.

What’s incongruous about all this “to-the-barricades” anti-capitalist rhetoric from the LV camp is that it’s coming from capitalists, or at least from many people who are making money from the current housing crisis, namely homeowners in Santa Monica (and their realtors). It’s not only Bransfield: City Council candidate and Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians describes himself on the ballot as a “civil/environmental engineer,” but at at least one point in his life he was a developer of mansions in Bel Air.

It’s hard to take seriously any arguments the Residocracy camp makes against making money from real estate.

Thanks for reading.

LV does not stop gentrification—it encourages it

Of all the strained rationales that otherwise progressive Santa Monicans resort to for supporting Measure LV the one most difficult to understand is that LV will stop gentrification.

Measure LV is designed to stop the development that would be allowed under the general plan land use and circulation updates (LUCE) adopted in 2010 and the zoning ordinance passed in 2015. The proponents of LV argue that this amount and kind of development would cause gentrification. This development would mostly be, as most development over the past 20 years in Santa Monica has been, multi-unit housing downtown and in other commercial zones.

Under LUCE and the new zoning, housing development is expected to continue to occur at the rate of about 250 units per year, annually about a one-half of one percent increase over Santa Monica’s approximately 50,000 existing housing units. Under 1990’s Measure R, at least 30% of these units must be deed-restricted affordable to low- and moderate-income tenants. Under LUCE and the new zoning, nearly all of these units will be built on land zoned for commercial development, i.e., not in neighborhoods.

According to LV’s proponents, development of these residences would cause gentrification. Could this be true?

How to define gentrification has been the subject of much academic discussion, and the word is used in various circumstances. What people who fear gentrification in Santa Monica mean, however, when they use the term, and what they fear, is that previously low rents and housing prices in neighborhoods (chiefly the Pico Neighborhood) are increasing so as to be out of the reach of historically low-income residents. They fear that new residents with higher incomes are moving in, increasing pressure on housing costs, and displacing long-time residents.

The causes of this influx are Santa Monica’s increased attractiveness, such as has resulted from the rebirth of downtown over the past 30 years, the city’s good schools and other services, and the higher-paying jobs that came to Santa Monica as offices and post-production studios replaced factories. Residents concerned about gentrification even fear the effect of the Expo light rail (even as they welcome it): a neighborhood, Pico, that was once “across the tracks” now is “along the tracks” and near Expo stations, adding to the value of real estate and making apartments there more desirable.

There’s no question that housing costs have increased in Santa Monica, including in former low-rent districts like Pico. Rents and housing prices have been increasing all over the L.A. area, including in low-income areas, as a result of a housing shortage that has been much discussed, but Santa Monica has housing costs that are among the highest in California and thus in the country. (Santa Monica also has a lot of upscale apartments, which raise the average rent.)

These high rents have attracted developers. Starting about 20 years ago the City began encouraging developers to build apartments in commercial zones, particularly downtown. The purpose was to take development pressure away from neighborhoods. In the late ’80s and early ’90s developers were using the Ellis Act to tear down rent-controlled apartments and replace them with condos. The City made it more difficult to do that, and compensated (because state law said the City couldn’t block the building of housing) by encouraging residential development in commercial zones. The LUCE and the zoning ordinance continue these policies.

Do these developments drive gentrification? Do they increase rents in low-income neighborhoods, driving residents out? The answer is no, for several reasons.

For one, adding to the housing supply does not increase rents on old housing stock, even if high rents in new buildings raise the average rent citywide. This doesn’t mean that increasing the housing supply will necessarily lower rents, since rents are determined by many factors, including regional supply-and-demand and the attractiveness of a particular location, but if high-income people moving to Santa Monica have more choices for apartments, particularly new apartments, it’s less likely that these potential “gentrifiers” will seek to rent old apartments in historically low-income neighborhoods.

Conversely, not building new apartments, the purpose of LV, would increase the pressure on historically low-rent neighborhoods. If our theoretical gentrifiers can’t find housing in high-end neighborhoods, or in a “happening” area like downtown, they are more likely to look for something in Pico.

This is what has happened in Sunset Park over the past 30 years with single-family homes. Bungalows that once housed Douglas factory workers were purchased and upgraded and now go for millions of dollars. I.e., the neighborhood gentrified (to the financial benefit of anyone who held onto the old bungalow).

While there isn’t room in Santa Monica’s R1 zones to build more single-family homes, there remains room in commercial zones to build apartments and condos to take pressure off neighborhoods like Pico. (With the added benefit that replacing potential commercial development with residential reduces the growth in traffic congestion.)

There’s also a danger with LV that as single-family home prices continue to increase in Santa Monica, reflecting demand for home-ownership, and without the building of condominiums to absorb the demand, owners of rent-controlled apartment buildings will use the Ellis Act to tear them down and replace them with large, single-family homes, which can be built “by right” with no planning review. This is already happening in a few instances.

So, no, LV will not stop gentrification. Just the opposite.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

No denying: LV is anti-development

Last week I wrote about the disconnect from generally-accepted-progressive-urban-policies had by people who consider themselves progressive but who support restrictive development measures like Measure LV. These progressive policies, whether they come from the Sierra Club or the Obama Administration, promote “infill” development rather than sprawl, particularly in affluent urban areas like Santa Monica and the Westside where policies restricting multi-family housing and high housing prices have excluded low- and even middle-income households.

In reaction to this disconnect, supporters of LV who nationally support liberal politicians and progressive causes search for reasons to make LV fit into the progressive mold.

The most basic rationale is denial. Against all evidence, including the express intentions of Residocracy, there are people in Santa Monica who deny that LV would prevent development or, at least, deny that it would prevent good development (however that might be defined). This has been the basic argument of the “S.M.a.r.t.” group of (mostly) architects who now write a weekly column for the Mirror. They’re not against development they say, only “over” development that’s not “properly” planned, and they say there can be plenty of good development within the 32-36 foot height limit of LV.

This is usually expressed in hopeful generalities, such as this from a recent S.M.a.r.t. column: “For Santa Monica to continue to be a progressive, livable city, we must find a way to balance our priorities of growth and quality of life. Our transition to the future will be successful only if we can plan ahead properly and act with restraint.” (Apparently, the “way” to achieve this balance is to adopt an extreme measure that puts nearly all development over two stories to a vote.)

One problem with this argument, nice as it sounds, is that it runs up against Residocracy’s purpose, which to stop development. To my knowledge none of the key founders of Residocracy, Armen Melkonians, Tricia Crane, and Kate Bransfield, have ever supported any development other than single-family homes. Melkonians, going back to when he first ran for City Council in 2012, has argued that Santa Monica is a “full bucket,” to which nothing can be added. In May of this year, he told the City Council that Santa Monica doesn’t need additional housing.

no-yes-photo

Not all supporters of LV consider themselves progressives: many oppose affordable housing as “over-development.”

Another problem with the S.M.a.r.t. argument is that LV is the opposite of “plan[ning] ahead properly.” Instead, LV is a nihilistic, fearful and angry reaction to good, forward-thinking and highly restrained, planning.

Residocracy created LV in response to 11 years of careful planning that began in 2004. The first six years were spent updating the land use and circulation elements (the “LUCE”) of Santa Monica’s General Plan. The LUCE directed new development away from neighborhoods, toward about five percent of Santa Monica’s land, land located downtown, along the boulevards, and in old industrial and other commercial zones. Talk about restraint. When City Council passed the LUCE in 2010, the slow-growth community in Santa Monica largely praised it. The next five years were spent drafting the zoning ordinance, which further reduced the amount of development allowed in the city.

All this planning resulted int policies and laws that would effectively convert land zoned for commercial development into residential development, thus providing needed housing and at the same time reducing the commercial development that generates traffic congestion.

Those eleven years involved much careful analysis, even more public input, and ultimately compromises that nearly everyone involved in Santa Monica politics, including politicians who had based their careers in opposing development, accepted. The only politicians who did not accept the outcome of this long process were those associated with Residocracy.

Residocracy’s response to the LUCE and the new zoning: We’re going to ignore all that, draft our own law, and get it on the ballot by telling people that they can sign here and stop traffic congestion. That’s planning ahead? Properly?

The result, if LV passes, would be the opposite of the “balance” that the S.M.a.r.t. writers say they want. Yes, many square feet can, and ultimately would, be developed under LV. But rather than go to the voters to get approval for a three or four-story apartment building on a boulevard, or a five or six-story apartment building downtown, development that would balance our priorities and improve our quality of life (by improving street frontages, improving walkability, etc.), any rational property owner or developer would slap up, by-right, with no review to speak of, a 32-foot tall retail or office development that would make the developer plenty of money and attract more drivers all day long.

Next: why opposing gentrification is not a reason to vote for LV.

Thanks for reading.