When history repeats as farce it’s not always funny

“If the slow-growth movement … has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly—in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics—a reassertion of social privilege.” —Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990).

In an attempt to remind myself of the historical context behind the anti-development politics I’ve been writing about, I went back and reread the famous 60-page chapter, called “Homegrown Revolution,” that Mike Davis wrote in City of Quartz 25 years ago about the homeowner movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Davis, if you haven’t read the book, takes no prisoners. He’s equally rough on Anglo homeowners, enriched by the rapid increase in property values of the late ’70s, who banded together to enact Prop. 13 and keep apartments (and not incidentally minorities) out of their neighborhoods, and the Growth Machine developers and their kept politicians whom the would-be “sunbelt Bolsheviks” so feared.

At a certain point Davis refers to Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” to make the point that for all their fervor, and with the notable exception of the Prop. 13 campaign, the slow-growthers were usually disorganized, like the peasants whose potential for revolution Marx dismissed. Reading this reference 25 years later I found a retrospective irony. Notwithstanding what Marx said about the peasants the most famous line in Eighteenth Brumaire is the one where he, in comparing the Emperor Napoleon and this nephew Napoleon III (Louis Bonaparte), says that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” When you compare the issues that provoked anti-development activists in the ’70s with those that fuel anti-development fires today, farce is what comes to mind.

So many people newly involved in anti-development politics in Santa Monica, and I’m thinking of many in Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, act as if they’ve discovered things that no one else knew about. Did you know that traffic is congested and that developers want to make money? What a shock!

I hate to play the old baby boomer card, but we’ve been through this before. There’s a reason that freeways don’t cut up the Santa Monica Mountains, and that was because in the ’60s Marvin Braude and others formed the Hillside Federation to stop them. There are reasons that downtown Santa Monica doesn’t look like downtown Glendale, that there are only two apartment towers on the beach in Ocean Park, and that thousands of apartments have been saved from destruction, and that’s because when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981, Santa Monica became, as described by William Fulton, another great chronicler of L.A. (in The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to confront the Southern California Growth Machine.

SMRR arose because of a real crisis, not something ginned up. The reason analysts label today’s regional housing crisis as the worst in decades is because the crisis of the late ’70s was even more dramatic. L.A. housing prices, which early in the decade were slightly lower than the national average, increased 30 to 40 percent a year, and rents exploded, too. Oh, and by the way, people complained about traffic back then, too. Locally developers had big plans to turn industrial areas into office parks, as had happened on Ocean Park Boulevard with the Douglas Aircraft site, creating many more jobs per acre, which would mean more commuters. And let’s not forget other serious problems, like homelessness and gang violence, and decaying infrastructure.

Not everything worked out—there was the matter of the approval in the ’80s of twice the office square footage predicted in Santa Monica’s 1984 land use plan—but the worst damage was averted and there were many positive achievements. I’m tempted to say that there were giants in those days, but in any case movements against genuine ills create big ideas and powerful language. The tragedy comes when those ideas and words are applied to more trivial circumstances. Then they become farcical.

That’s not to say we don’t have problems today, they’re just not the ones complainers in Santa Monica complain about. They’re still acting as if Santa Monica is a “Leave It to Beaver” suburb, when in fact it’s part of the central core of a megalopolis. Longtime residents (the only ones who are supposed to have standing to complain) have a lot to be thankful for—high property values and low, Prop. 13 taxes if they are homeowners, rent-controlled rents if they are renters, convenient access to whatever services they need, shorter commutes than average. What drives them crazy is traffic, but traffic is bad all over, it’s been bad for a long time, and it’s not necessarily getting worse. The reality today is not about how to preserve a suburb, even an industrial suburb like Santa Monica once was, but about how to make a city work.

Here’s a fact to chew on from the Housing Element of Santa Monica’s General Plan: in 2013 82.8% of all housing in the city was more than 30 years old—built before 1983. The development that the anti-development crowd should actually be complaining about took place in the era they have the most nostalgia for. But if nearly 30,000 units (of 50,000 total today) hadn’t been built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, most Santa Monicans wouldn’t have a place to live.

Thanks for reading.


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.