Happy City, USA

Every two years the City of Santa Monica hires a polling company to conduct a survey of public opinion, and the latest report has just been released. Jason Islas wrote a good summary of the report for The Lookout, but it’s worth taking a look at the report itself. (Which is accessible through the City’s staff report —the whole survey can be downloaded as a PDF from a link at the end of the report.)

What the survey shows is that Santa Monicans are aware of and care about a full range of urban issues and have a sophisticated understanding of how city government responds to those issues. But when reading the report one needs to take into account that the pollsters ask two kinds of questions: open-ended questions and direct questions, and the distinction is important for understanding the results.

When investigating what issues residents think are important the pollsters start with an open-ended question, asking their respondents, without giving any suggestions, to name one or two “most important issues” facing the city. Asked this way, no single issue (which was “too many homeless”) was mentioned by more than 29% of the respondents; one other issue, traffic congestion, was mentioned by 28%, and after that there was a quick drop off — 13% mentioned lack of parking, 10% cited too much development, and so on.

So from this it appears that there aren’t many issues that excite residents; good news at least is that when given two chances to bring up a problem, no more than 29% of Santa Monicans agree on any given problem as being important. At least this indicates that there is no single issue that has masses of us in a panic.

But the message is different if you look at the answers to questions where the pollsters name issues that might be important and the respondents aren’t limited to only two responses. When the survey asked residents to evaluate the importance of seven specific issues, clear majorities found that four issues (traffic (63%), affordability of housing (63%), number of homeless (62%), and lack of parking (57%)) were “very” or “somewhat” serious issues; lesser percentages believed that the three other issues were very or somewhat serious (amount of development (43%), crime (20%), and youth violence (15%)).

The universe of concern expands even further when the pollsters ask about city services. The poll asked respondents to evaluate 23 specific city services (from providing emergency services, to keeping traffic flowing, to providing affordable housing, to providing services to youth, etc., etc.) as to how important they were; what do you know, but according to the survey, majorities of Santa Monicans believe that all 23 services are important.

I said two paragraphs ago that how the questions are asked leads to a different message, but I want to amend that – in fact it’s the same message. Santa Monica residents have a broad understanding of what role a city government plays in managing our society, and an understanding of how complex the problems are. They’re not panicked about anything: when asked about how good a job City Hall does in providing each of those 23 types of services, on every issue only minorities of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the City’s performance. By a ratio of 2-1 respondents said they believed they had the opportunity to voice concerns to the City.

On the most basic question — when the pollsters asked them how good a place Santa Monica was to live — 92% said it was either an excellent place to live (60%!) or “pretty good.”

Yet some people still wonder why incumbents get reelected and why Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the dominant political organization for 30 years, is the Number One brand name in local politics.

Much political discourse in our town invokes crisis – we seem to bounce from one to another, in response to whoever is complaining, and how loudly, about something at any given moment. They always say they represent the residents.

But our residents cannot be generalized about – except perhaps in the City’s motto: “Populus felix in urbe felice.”

Thanks for reading.

Track Records and Traffic Engineers

The other shoe has dropped, and we won’t be seeing Jeff Tumlin at any public meetings in Santa Monica. It’s too bad, because Tumlin had an ability to help people see the forest instead of the trees when it came to managing traffic. Simply put, what Tumlin was telling us, and which a lot of Santa Monicans came to understand during the LUCE process, was that if you want to reduce the amount of traffic, you need to address your policies to the amount of traffic, and that you can’t control traffic indirectly by trying to prohibit development, because in a growing region ultimately development is going to happen.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend, a Santa Monica resident who is active in the city and her neighborhood but not particularly involved in the politics of land-use. She had, however, been following the Tumlin controversy, and she told me that people she was talking to from the anti-Tumlin side were saying that his “theories” about reducing traffic through reducing parking and increasing density and access to alternative forms of transportation had never been proved, and that “real” traffic engineers scoffed at the theories because there was no “track record.”

I was kind of stunned. You mean, traffic engineers are bragging about their track records? Who else do they want to blame for the transportation and quality of life disasters of the past half-century? To be blunt, traffic engineers were presented with a problem of how to facilitate movement in a growing region, and they blew it.

Ever since the ’20s Southern Californians have been complaining about traffic. The solution from traffic engineers and other planners (okay, the traffic engineers weren’t working alone) was always to solve the problem by (i) increasing road capacity (meaning freeways and six and eight lane “boulevards” with vestigial sidewalks), (ii) dispersing development (sprawl), and (iii) requiring parking everywhere. On the short run, when the concrete was fresh, these policies could help some people get around in their cars (while impoverishing the urban core, but that’s another story), but on the not-so-long term the result not only was our long regional traffic nightmare, but also some of the ugliest urban vistas in creation, elephantine carbon-footprints, and a world where millions need to drive to the gym to get the exercise equivalent of a good walk.

So let’s get this straight: now that there’s no room to build more freeways or to widen the boulevards, now that we’ve reached the limits of sprawl, and now that we can’t build an 800 square-foot apartment without building 700 square feet of parking, the traffic engineers are saying that people who want to try another approach don’t have a track record?

I should say at this point that what Tumlin proposes has by now gone beyond the theoretical stage (and didn’t originate with him anyway, as he would tell you in second). Nonetheless, let’s assume, like the intelligent design folks say about Darwinism, that we’re just talking about theory, and let’s acknowledge that in the history of urban planning, like in the history of everything else, there have been some disastrous theories.

But does that mean we have to keep banging our heads with something that didn’t work?

What Jeff Tumlin proposes for Santa Monica isn’t for the benefit of developers. It’s for the benefit of us.

Thanks for reading.

“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.

78.72% to 16%: One Reason Santa Monica is Better Governed than L.A.

The L.A. Times ran Steve Lopez’s column on the front page today lamenting the fact that only 16% of voters in the City of Los Angeles bothered to vote in Tuesday’s primary, even though they were voting for a new mayor and an important half-cent sales tax measure (that went down to defeat). (Election officials believe the turnout might rise to 20% once all absentee and provisional ballots are counted.)

Santa Monica holds its local election in November of even-numbered years. The turnout  last November was 78.72%.

In L.A., candidates and their supporters run campaigns to get their voters to the polls. In effect, they choose their voters, and whoever can motivate the most, or who has more voters with special reasons to vote, wins. In Santa Monica, the voters are going to vote anyway because of the national and statewide races. The candidates have to persuade them who to vote for—the voters choose the winners.

Sure there are problems running local elections in Novembers of even-numbered years. Speaking as a losing candidate in November’s election, I can tell you that it’s hard to reach masses of voters when you’re competing for attention with national and statewide campaigns.

But the voters who vote represent the people—actually they don’t represent the people, they are the people. (It’s no coincidence, but when Santa Monica wanted to pass a half-cent sales tax increase the City Council put the measure on the November 2010 ballot, and it passed.)

Just one reason—not the only one—why Santa Monica is bettered governed than L.A. Oh, and it has a name. It’s called democracy.

Thanks for reading.


The Other N-Word

When he used “NIMBY” to describe the opponents of development in Santa Monica Jeff Tumlin violated consultant rule number one – don’t embarrass your employers – but his doing so at least brings up a question, one that I have wondered about for years, which is what should one call the political faction that most consistently opposes development in Santa Monica?

I’ll confess that when I was writing my Lookout column, I used words like NIMBY and “no-growther” that I knew riled up people who ­– after all – believed in good faith that they were being reasonable when they opposed every project that came down the pike. I even invented a term, “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change,” that may have been technically accurate, but which wasn’t nice at all.

There are people in town, with whom I’m probably in agreement about the issues 90% of the time, who are still mad at me.

But at the same time I found it hard to be political friends with people who described the Planning Commission when I was on it as being “rubber stampers” for developers. Planning staff were also rubber stampers, or worse, and of course the plans being stamped were always those of a “greedy” developer.

To this day, it’s absurd that people accuse the likes of Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who have long and consistent records regarding their views about land use and how cities should develop, views that are, by the way, consistent with an overwhelming amount of research and thinking about urban and environmental problems, of being corrupted by the fact that some developers support their candidacies when they run for office.

It’s one thing to mock the fervency by which a group of your opponents believes in their case, it’s quite another to call people you disagree with corrupt.

But advocates from all sides in Santa Monica development politics, and I’ll include myself, are guilty of using intemperate language to describe political opponents. As for me, I have resolved in the future to use nothing more provocative than the adjective “anti-development” to describe the faction of Santa Monica politics represented by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. (Not that anyone who is not in that faction is necessarily “pro-development;” we’re all slow-growthers in Santa Monica.)

I don’t know, however, if “anti-development” will satisfy anyone. The anti-development faction likes to be referred to simply as the “residents,” and they speak of themselves in that manner – they are the residents and this is what they want (or don’t want). They get help for this from local news media, which habitually refer to any group that opposes something as the “residents,” as in the typical headline that begins “Residents Oppose…” It’s like the word “some” doesn’t exist in their word processors. There are many meetings of the City Council or the Planning Commission where half (or more) the speakers who live in Santa Monica are in favor of something, but our media typically refer only to the opposition as “the residents.”

But we all like conflict, the more elemental the better. The press likes to depict development issues, which typically involve complex social and economic issues and an equally complex cast of characters, as a zero sum game between the developer and the “residents.” No one else counts.

Take this as you will – as someone who, as a columnist, did my share of over-simplifying the views of people I disagreed with, I’m only a poor sinner who has now discovered the gospel, that it’s not only sticks and stones that break bones.

Thanks for reading.

The Transportation Impact Fee: A Good Plan

At the City Council meeting tonight planning staff is asking the council to approve a plan to impose a Transportation Impact Fee (TIF) on most new development in the city. While the plan would impose the fee on new residential development (other than affordable), something that might be questioned because residential development is good for the city in numerous ways, including because it helps relieve traffic caused by commuters into Santa Monica, the plan is well thought out and I hope the council approves it.

How is the plan well thought out? Well, for instance:

• The plan would assess the TIF only on the net new development on a site; i.e., if a new development replaces an existing development, which will generally be the case in Santa Monica since there is little vacant land, the fee is charged only on the amount of new development. Most future residential development in Santa Monica will occur in commercial zones that are already developed, and the TIF will not be charged on either housing or new commercial (such as ground-floor retail) that replaces what was already there.

• Staff estimates that the TIF will generate a substantial portion (about 40%) of the 20-year costs for the improvements to our transportation infrastructure identified in the LUCE. New development should not carry the entire burden for infrastructure improvements, since the traffic issues have been developing for decades (and also reflect conditions outside of Santa Monica), but new residents and businesses in Santa Monica get access to a high level of existing infrastructure. The plan strikes a fair balance.

• The plans under the LUCE for how to spend the money are good, and the new infrastructure will add value to the new developments themselves. The plan calls not for spending the money in a fruitless effort to “mitigate” traffic by increasing road capacity (which is self-defeating because widening roads attracts more vehicles onto all of our streets), but by improving the environment for cyclists, pedestrians and transit-users, and by improving transit itself. These measures will actually reduce the number of motorists and miles traveled by car.

• Finally, the fees that staff proposes are fair, particularly in the context that staff is, on a parallel track, proposing to reduce parking requirements for new developments. The reduction of one underground parking space, at a conservatively-estimated cost of $40,000, would pay the TIF for 10 to 15 apartments (depending on location), or up to several thousand square feet of retail or office development. One reason I support charging the TIF on housing is that I expect that planning staff will push as hard for these reductions in parking requirements (which will themselves reduce traffic) as staff is pushing for the TIF.

This doesn’t mean the fees couldn’t be tweaked. The Chamber of Commerce in its letter to the council about the TIF made some good points. But overall, this is a good plan, a fact that even the Chamber’s letter acknowledges. Better traffic management benefits everyone, including, or even especially, business.

It’s good to see that the City is beginning to implement the updated Circulation Element of the General Plan – the “CE” of the LUCE.

Thanks for reading.

Reducing Parking to Reduce Traffic

What a nightmare! For Valentine’s Day my wife and I made a reservation at a sushi place on Sawtelle for seven o’clock. After checking with Google, which told us the trip would take 24 minutes in current traffic, we left at 6:30. We arrived an hour later (what were we thinking?) and after two calls to the restaurant asking them to hold the reservation on a busy night. (The meal was wonderful and our marriage survived the non-romantic traffic.)

I hate being trapped in Santa Monica every night, but I also hate the fact that in the name of fighting traffic, for 80 years we have been doing everything that makes traffic worse by encouraging, in fact by requiring, more driving: by increasing road capacity, by sprawling out development farther and farther away, by destroying and underfunding transit, and by overbuilding and subsidizing parking.

Parking, the black hole of planning, is crucial because people make decisions not to drive to places where parking is scarce.

The Santa Monica Planning Department, which is drafting a new zoning ordinance under the LUCE, recently unveiled plans to reduce parking requirements for new residential developments.

Many members of the public responded with outrage. That didn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that people who complain about traffic congestion also complain about reducing parking requirements. My primary reason for agreeing that we should reduce the parking supply is that I want to reduce traffic.

No, not everyone will stop driving cars if we only wish it so. But not everyone drives as much as everyone else. I don’t want to attract to Santa Monica new residents who drive more, and we can discourage them from moving here by reducing the amount of parking available in new apartments and by requiring new residents to pay the real costs of their parking spaces.

Consider: It costs about $40,000 to build an underground parking space. To amortize that amount, at 5% interest over 30 years, the monthly cost is $215. Add in maintenance, and round it up to $250. Let’s say we have a couple who both work and who want to move to Santa Monica. Your prototypical American working couple who own two cars would need to pay $500 a month for parking if they moved into a building where parking was only available at cost. But if one of them doesn’t need a car to commute, they’ll only need one car and one space, and save half the money.

More to the point, if only one parking space were available for the apartment, and street parking is limited, too, a two-car couple would want to live somewhere else.

As a Santa Monican who wants to reduce traffic congestion, I want to attract new residents who drive less, and to do so I don’t want to subsidize car ownership for those who drive more.

Maybe you are saying – why build apartments and attract any more residents? The answer is that in Santa Monica, where nearly every lot is developed, if we build housing in commercial zones, we’re probably reducing traffic because either the existing commercial development on the site already causes more driving than housing that could be built there would, or if the property is redeveloped as commercial it will certainly cause more driving than new housing.

As for the argument that not requiring developers to build more parking is a giveaway to developers, why do we need to give anything away? Just because you’re not requiring developers to waste money on something that’s not needed (surplus parking), that doesn’t mean you can’t require them to spend it on something else – like paying for traffic mitigations and transit improvements.

Thanks for reading.

Welcome to the Healthy City Local, my new blog about Santa Monica

Welcome to the Healthy City Local, my new blog about Santa Monica. Why am I writing it? After I didn’t win a seat on the Santa Monica City Council in November, friends and former readers of “What I Say,” the column I wrote for The Santa Monica Lookout News, asked me if I would resume writing the column. After all, I had stopped writing it so that could run, since I couldn’t be a journalist and a politician at the same time.

It’s an understatement to say that I enjoyed writing the column, but after almost a year of being an active participant in Santa Monica politics, I can’t return to being merely an observer.

I don’t know if I will run for office again, or what form my participation will take (if you’re reading this I probably don’t need to tell you that in January I applied for a position on the Planning Commission but the City Council appointed someone else), but I know I am going to stay active.

Activism is great, but I miss writing about Santa Monica. I write about urbanism for the Huffington Post, but it’s not the same as writing about what you’re close to – “write what you know,” the adage goes, and it’s not so much that I “know” Santa Monica but that I’m always getting to know it better. Besides, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to write about, unique, but with every issue. It’s no generic place on a Thomas Brothers map.

One thing I learned during the election campaign is that everyone looks at Santa Monica differently. They see different things. I’ll go further than that: a lot of people love Santa Monica, but I’d say that everyone who loves Santa Monica loves it at least a little differently from how everyone else loves it.

I’ve now been involved in public life in Santa Monica for 20 years. Along with my family and my work, this relationship to and with a city has been among the most satisfying and enjoyable elements of my life.

I hope to use this blog to articulate why that is so. Thanks for reading.