Until about three years ago, most developers considered Santa Monica an unfriendly city for development, a city to avoid at all cost, only to be tackled by the true brave at heart.
Developers all across the country knew that any development plans resulting in increased density and added traffic to our town would be hard fought and lost. Lots of time and money would be required in an environment that was unfriendly to development interests, an environment where resident interests were sure to triumph over political favors and development fees that could be captured by decision makers and the city.
The policies set by the City Council and enforced by the city manager, city attorney, planning staff, Planning Commission, Architectural Review Board and the Rent Control Board were all geared toward maintaining the residents’ quality of life without the need for densification and growth. Zoning laws were intended to protect the entire city, with resident interests at the forefront.
But all of this changed. In just three short years since the adoption of the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (the LUCE), our town has now become a Mecca for developers.
Nowhere else are developers lining up to pay top dollar for “potential” development sites. With development agreements, developers are encouraged to pack their project, maximizing profits to the last dollar in exchange for “benefits to the community.”
So, why and how did this change occur? How did we become a town that was known by builders across the country as anti-development to a town whose head of planning gives bus tours to developers pointing out potential development sites?
The answer lies in policy. There was a fundamental change in policy made by our elected officials in about 2007 toward growth and densification. Adopted in 2010, the LUCE became the policy document paving the way for the physical changes to our built environment.
So how did the LUCE change policy toward the massive growth and densification we are witnessing in Santa Monica without the residents realizing it at the time of its adoption? A big portion of this answer lies in the “community benefits” provisions included in LUCE, coupled with the tiered system of development.
The LUCE requires community benefits such as open space, historic preservation, arts, and affordable and workforce housing for development above a base level (or tier). In exchange for providing community benefits, developers are granted intense bonuses for densification and entitlement rights, which must be approved by our elected officials.
The tiered system of development even allows the negotiation of increased community benefits through a development agreement and allows developers to formally and legally propose their own zoning ordinance applicable only to their specific property. A development agreement becomes nothing more than a city ordinance, which applies only to the developer’s lot and bypasses city laws. Zoning density requirements of one unit per 400 or 800 square feet of lot area are replaced with ratios such as 10 units instead.
By introducing community benefits into the conversation of allowable development and growth, LUCE allowed our elected officials to reframe the conversation of the future of Santa Monica. The LUCE showed pretty pictures of new parks and open space filled with art, people walking to work instead of driving, and cafes on the streets filled with happy people. It did not show pictures of increased traffic and congestion, or large new buildings housing hundreds of people, or the destruction of Village Trailer Park, nor the real impacts of densification and growth to our city.
When a simple policy question — “Should Santa Monica densify and grow at the current rate of expansion?” — becomes intertwined with complications such as parks, low-income housing, sustainability, vibrancy, widgets, red rubber balls and dancing bears, we lose sight of the overall real impact that densification has on our currently amazing beach town and whether we as residents want that densification or not.
My primary maxim is that Santa Monica does not need any additional densification, today or in the foreseeable future. We are already a built-out city.
The only reason that the complications of community benefits are brought into the question is to confuse the issue and to allow for densification as a policy shift. All of this auxiliary talk is a classic wag-the-dog scenario to distract from the real impacts of densification. All of these community benefits promised by developers are the sizzle that ends up selling the bacon. And the developers are the butchers that sell us this pork.
Of course we need more parks. As a community, we are already ranked below acceptable levels of parks and open space for today’s existing residents. The way we are going about adding new open space in development agreements, however, will leave us at a larger deficit at the end of the day. Densification is not the answer.
We residents need to wake up and deal with the smell of this hot, sizzling bacon. It’s time to stop all of this side talk of community benefits and time to stop the densification of Santa Monica before it is too late. I, for one, do not care to see a dancing bear in exchange for a decreased quality of life in our town.
This column was authored by Armen Melkonians, civil and environmental engineer and a grassroots advocate for resident democracy. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.