The great architect and visionary city planner Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The truth is more important than the facts.” That quote kept running through my head as I listened to people from Saint John’s Health Center and its representative, the Shane Miller Company, informing their neighbors about the progress of hospital construction at a meeting two weeks ago. For years, Mid-City residents who live near the site have seen increased traffic, reduced parking, and have put up with health issues from Saint John’s sewage. These facts are generally accepted and totally undisputed — except in meetings with people from Saint John’s and the Shane Miller Company.
For six months I’ve been working to find the truth behind what’s really going on with Santa Monica’s worst neighbor and most powerful real estate developer, Sister Sue Miller of Leavenworth, Kan. — and it isn’t pretty. The truth is that the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth entered into an agreement with the city of Santa Monica to develop Saint John’s Health Center, the Sisters have violated that agreement from the beginning, and our City Council has negligently abdicated its responsibility to hold the Sisters accountable; effectively rendering the people of Santa Monica totally powerless. It’s time for council members and the organization that put most of them in place, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, to show the people of this city who and what they stand for.
When it comes to development agreements, city and state laws are unequivocal — even if the bodies charged with enforcing them are impotent. California Government Code Section 65865.1 requires “periodic review at least every 12 months, at which time the applicant … shall be required to demonstrate good faith compliance with the terms of the agreement.” It goes on to say, “If, as a result of such periodic review, the local agency finds and determines … that the applicant … has not complied in good faith with terms or conditions of the agreement, the local agency may terminate or modify the agreement.” California law also allows City Hall to “modify or suspend the provisions of the development agreement if the city determines that the failure … to do so would place … the residents of the city … in a condition dangerous to their health.”
The Santa Monica Municipal Code largely mirrors state law. Section 9.48.190 states, “The City Council shall review the development agreement at least every 12 months” and it requires the Sisters to “demonstrate good faith compliance with the terms of the development agreement.” Most importantly, it says, “If, as a result of such periodic review, the City Council finds and determines … that the applicant … has not complied in good faith with the terms or conditions of the development agreement, the City Council may commence proceedings to enforce, modify or terminate the development agreement.”
So, make no mistake, both the state of California and the city of Santa Monica require our City Council to review the Saint John’s agreement annually. Both require a demonstration of good faith compliance and both empower the City Council to effectively cancel the agreement if the Sisters don’t comply in good faith or if they endanger the health or safety of city residents. Since there is no way to claim good faith compliance when the underground parking garage the Sisters agreed to build is nowhere to be found in any of their plans over the last 12 years; and since there is no question that the problems associated with the Sisters pumping and hauling their sewage twice a week are a danger to health, I’m left with some questions for our City Council and, by extension, SMRR.
Have you been reviewing the Saint John’s Development agreement every 12 months? Did you know the Sisters were required to have their “parking operations plan” for the North Subterranean Parking Garage approved by the planning director before they were to be allowed to build the Keck Center (now completed)?
Did you know that the planning director doesn’t have and didn’t approve that plan, the Sisters have indicated they didn’t develop that plan before they submitted their 2007 application for permission to defer building the parking garage for at least 10 years, they haven’t developed that plan in the years since their application was submitted, and they don’t intend to ever develop that plan? Did you know that the reason the Sisters are refusing to fix their sewage problems or honor their agreement to build the garage is that it would cost too much money?
I’m not inclined to waste another six months finding out that the (obvious) answer to all these questions is a resounding, embarrassing, and emasculating “No.” So, let’s just move on to solutions, shall we?
There is a provision in the development agreement that requires the Sisters to make annual cash contributions to a “Community Benefit Plan.” The estimated cost of fixing the sewage problem and building the garage is about $40 million, and the cost of doing nothing is whatever it takes to buy land use attorney Chris Harding’s conscience. The council should immediately begin proceedings to amend the agreement and increase that required annual contribution to $10 million. That way, Sister Sue and SCLHS President William Murray will have to take this seriously and the people of Santa Monica will have a reason to think our City Council has our back. As it stands now, they don’t and we don’t.
And that’s the truth.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who is still surprised that compliance in good faith is so difficult for an order of nuns. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org