CITY HALL — Residents concerned about the pace of development and its impacts on traffic delivered to the city clerk Tuesday dozens of boxes stuffed with petitions with the goal of stopping a controversial construction project because they believe it is out of scale and will create more congestion.
With smiles on their faces and America flags in their hands, volunteers with the Residocracy movement celebrated in front of City Hall as they announced the collection of more than 13,400 signatures from local voters — more than double the roughly 6,500 required to put the Bergamot Transit Village development agreement approved by the City Council with a 4-3 vote last month on the ballot.
Many spoke of dedicating numerous hours to speaking with fellow residents on street corners, at coffee shops, churches, farmers’ markets and on doorsteps about the roughly 765,000 square feet of new office space, housing and retail planned by Texas-based developer Hines for the corner of 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard that would add 7,000 more car trips each day to Santa Monica streets if allowed to be built.
Most said those who signed were receptive and enthusiastic, with only a few opposed to the referendum. Volunteers had 30 days to collect the signatures. They submitted them with two days to spare, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
“Today is an historic day in Santa Monica,” said Armen Melkonians, founder of the Residocracy movement. “Today is the day that our voices will not only be heard, but it is a day in which our voices will truly make a difference. Today we are witnessing direct democracy in action.”
Representatives from Hines could not be reached for comment.
The scene conjured memories of grassroots efforts to stop the demolition of the Santa Monica Pier and the construction of tall office towers at the site of Santa Monica Place. In both cases the residents who fought back were victorious and those against the Hines development believe they will be once again.
“I think the city has to know there are limits on how much development fits,” said Julie Lopez Dad, a former planning and rent control commissioner who feels the Bergamot Transit Village does not contain enough affordable housing or open space and has “lousy” architecture. “I just went out to people I know, stood outside a business on Main Street and talked to people until I hit the brick wall, which was ‘I already signed it.’ That was great to hear.”
Many volunteers said they ran into several residents who had already signed the petition thanks in large part to a well-organized campaign that included neighborhood groups and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the city’s leading political party.
For 20-year resident Rachel Harms, it was the first time she had involved herself in civic affairs, but she knew the stakes were too high to sit on the sidelines.
“I knew I could no longer complain if I didn’t take action,” said Harms, who believes she spent roughly 20 hours gathering over 120 signatures. “This city has taken a nose dive. We’ve reached a boiling point when it comes to development.”
The city clerk will be counting the signatures and checking addresses to make sure to count only those living in Santa Monica. She will then send them off to the county clerk so they can be verified more thoroughly. The county has 30 days from receipt to verify them and report the findings.
If the referendum qualifies it will most likely go before voters during the General Election in November, however, the City Council could choose to hold a special election sooner at considerable cost to taxpayers — around $200,000, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
Former Mayor Michael Feinstein said the council and Hines will not risk further scorn from the public by holding an election and instead go back to the negotiating table.
“I believe the numbers signal the referendum would be successful,” Feinstein said. “A different path makes sense. … Residents wouldn’t just be voting on this project. It would be a referendum on traffic and congestion, and that’s a vote the developers can’t win.”
Residocracy volunteers said they want a project that is not as tall and includes more housing, which generates less traffic. They also want more green space instead of buildings situated so close together that they create canyons.
Supporters celebrated the project as a gateway to the city and a compliment to the adjacent Bergamot Expo Line Station. They said it was a good example of transit-oriented development because of its focus on sustainability, open space, affordable housing, and its variety of transportation options. Many also supported the developer’s contribution to early childhood education and aggressive transportation demand management programs intended to cut down car trips.
The city staff report’s economic analysis presented to the council identified $32 million in community benefits.
“We have been told that our community is split over the issue of growth and densification in Santa Monica,” Melkonians said. “Today it is clear that the only split that exists is the split between the four pro-growth City Council members and the real residents of Santa Monica.”
The four council members who approved the Hines development are Mayor Pam O’Connor, Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis and Bob Holbrook.
Davis told the Daily Press she has “no problem with a group of residents exercising their right to collect signatures to place a matter before the City Council or the voters.”
“We live in a democracy,” she said. “As the process continues, I am sure that there will be a robust debate about the issues.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown, one of the most vocal opponents of the Hines project, said he will vote to put the issue on the ballot if his colleagues don’t kill the current plan and renegotiate.
“Gathering twice the number of signatures needed, residents have doubled down on demands the council reconsider the Hines approval,” he said.
The project is already facing an additional challenge. On Monday, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City filed a lawsuit against City Hall for approving the development, saying Hines failed to study more environmentally friendly alternatives and that the council violated aspects of two land use plans.
The coalition is asking a judge to stop the project in its tracks and force Hines to study a reduced project with more housing and less commercial uses.