Good public policy demands the ability to be decisive when appropriate, but also the thoughtful willingness to pause, when needed, to learn from new information.
When we adopted Santa Monica’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) three and a half years ago, the City Council attempted its best guess as to the ideal ratio of commercial versus residential square footage. Since then, both traffic concerns and housing needs have increased. LUCE assumptions certainly deserve to be reconsidered in light of the volumes of significant new information provided by the state-required Hines project Environmental Impact Report.
With the adoption of the LUCE, we assured our community “no net new PM trips.” We need to assess whether we are delivering on our promises. The Hines EIR showed that their project will generate 7,000 new car trips, and will make mobility worse not only in the short term, but as far out as 2030.
That’s one reason I made a motion for an alternative project, all housing above the first floor, rather than intensively traffic-generating office space. Housing generates much less traffic than offices, and the traffic flow from housing tends to be in different directions and at different times of day than office employee commuting. Housing at the Hines site would not be as likely to exacerbate the already existing snarl from the Water Garden and other unfortunate past planning decisions for office complexes in the immediate area.
There are other reasons why a much more, not slightly more, residential project would have been a better choice for our community.
Since the LUCE was adopted, the state of California has cut off our redevelopment revenue, which for many years had been our primary tool for creating affordable housing. The Hines project provides too little housing, but worse, unacceptably too little housing at truly affordable prices. The last-minute minor change on rent levels nibbled gently around the edges. It was a love bite to the developer, not a substantive improvement that genuinely addressed our serious housing needs.
Where, I’d also ask, is the minimum open space called for in our Bergamot Area Plan? Hines supporters hail a “new park,” but the one contiguous park-like space in the Hines project would barely qualify for the tiniest tier of Santa Monica parks, about the size of Chess Park. Mothers with strollers expecting a usable new playspace for our community’s children will be gravely disappointed. The touted “2 acres of open space” at Hines includes traffic-filled streets and the narrow service corridors between buildings.
On open space, affordable housing, and other lasting community benefits, Planning Commission Chair Jennifer Kennedy pointed out that the Hines project fell significantly short of what’s required. I watched Kennedy, and others on the Planning Commission, try to negotiate improvements. It became clear the developer was unwilling to yield anything not demanded by the City Council, the ultimate decision-making body on a development agreement.
Hines threatened our city: Give us the development we want, or we will deliberately sabotage you with an undesirable reoccupation of the existing outdated factory building. The council majority caved, accepting the project pretty much as submitted by Hines, despite the enumerated shortcomings. Is that being “flexible” with standards, or is it bending over backwards for the developer?
We are confronted with a massive and ungainly project the community simply will not accept, as shown by the grassroots gathering of signatures to overturn the council majority decision via referendum.
We had the chance to define appropriate transit-oriented development in a place where traffic, housing, and open space were particularly important. The council majority abandoned “appropriate,” claiming fear that the developer would walk away from the deal. Such a walk-away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica, but this Hines decision tells other developers that “my way or the highway” threats will succeed with this current council majority.
Residents retain the power to counter that message and force renegotiation of a far better project. In this case, with neighbors carrying petitions in the streets, change comes one signature at a time. Will yours be one of them?
Kevin McKeown is a City Council member in Santa Monica who voted against the Hines project, known as the Bergamot Transit Village. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org