One of the major arguments proffered for building more low-income housing here is to maintain community diversity. “We don’t want Santa Monica to turn into another Beverly Hills,” is a frequent comment from the pro-development/affordable housing/Santa Monica Forward lobby.

Think about it. Is that so bad?  Beverly Hills is cleaner, has a lower crime rate than Santa Monica and many more amenities for residents.  But, I get what diversity advocates are saying. A community made up of variety of individuals Рethnically, racially and economically Рis always more interesting and valuable to the community.

Despite high property values and increasing rents, no matter where I go in Santa Monica, I see diversity.¬† At our supermarkets, I see people of all races, income levels and ethnicities. If they’re grocery shopping here, they probably live nearby.

The Third Street Promenade, Main Street and Montana Avenue look like meetings from the United Nations. I don’t buy the bogus claim that if we don’t build hundreds of low-income apartments annually, we’ll lose it or become like Beverly Hills. We have plenty of diversity.

Idealists, those profiting in the affordable housing industry and developers who know a few extra low income units will get them height and density bonuses worth millions of dollars are pushing the “need more housing” agenda. Powerful members of the Santa Monica for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) steering committee see developer benefits as a way to finance favorite causes and recruit more members. Council just approved a development agreement for a five floor (60 feet tall), 100 unit mixed-use project at 1560 Lincoln Boulevard (formerly Denny’s). Its developer, NMS Properties, has promised to provide 20 low-income affordable units on site, $150,000 for early childhood initiatives and $745,000 for parks and recreation uses, among other benefits. Councilmembers were enthusiastic about the pedestrian experience the project would bring to the corner of Lincoln and Colorado.

Really? What’s council’s fascination with people on sidewalks, assuming that will occur when this turkey is opened?¬† Pedestrian traffic isn’t a community benefit but I digress. Council also OK’d a mixed-use development at 1415 5th Street, with six floors (84 feet) and 64 apartments,14 of them “affordable.” NMS Properties promised a monetary contribution of $90,000 toward transportation programs, $280,000 toward parks and recreation programs, $100,000 toward early childhood initiatives and $40,000 toward Big Blue Bus downtown improvements, among others. In return, NMS can far exceed the site’s current zoning which calls for a 32-foot building.

Fifield Co. Ltd., the developer of 1601 Lincoln (formerly Norms), a 90-apartment project (18 on site low-income units) with a five floor (57 foot) wing, has promised $820,000 for transportation programs, $595,000 for parks and recreation use, $150,000 for early childhood education and an additional $150,000 for affordable housing elsewhere in the city, among other benefits. Council is expected to review this in December.

Who makes out? While the early childhood lobby gets $400,000, parks advocates win $1,390,000 and housing advocates get dozens of new, low-income housing units, the rest of us face an overly tall and unattractive skyline for the rest of our lives.

When asked about increased water use resulting from all the development, Mayor Kevin McKeown is on record as saying that housing development wasn’t contributing to the problem because new units will have low flow toilets and showerheads. Really? Say anything to push the old agenda. Community benefits provide an opportunity for cronyism, mutual back scratching and favoritism, not real community value.

Judy Abdo, a co-founder of Santa Monica Forward, a developer-backed group that supports more housing and development, sees hundreds of thousands of developer “community benefit” dollars flow into her pet causes: early childhood education and affordable housing (to name two). In return for her support, Abdo, a former mayor and councilwoman (1988-1996) who sits on the powerful SMRR steering committee, makes it a point to let developers know exactly what’s required to get her backing and their developments built. Ask Santa Monicans whether they’d rather have more diversity or improved circulation, more cultural opportunities and optimal park/recreational facilities for their kids. More housing development for people who want to move here or meaningful social programs for our seniors, children and the disabled?

There may be hope. New City Manager Rick Cole suggested to council (Oct. 13) that piecemeal approval of developments be put “on hold” pending adoption of a Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) and that it establish a standardized list of community benefits pegged to levels of development and a cap on the maximum size of projects. It’s a smart move that would go a long way to take the finagling and politics out of the planning process and substantially reduce the development agreement/spot planning process now in effect.

The Quasimodo at Fourth and Arizona

As a reminder, much of the council meeting tomorrow night will be spent discussing the concept plans for the development agreement for a 12-floor (148 foot) 420,200 sq. ft. mixed-use development at 1401 Fourth St. at Arizona Avenue.

When it comes to community benefits, the staff report states, “It is anticipated that the amount and nature of affordable housing, cultural space, and public space programming would exceed the contributions that would have otherwise been negotiated for childcare, cultural arts, affordable housing, and parks and recreation.” In other words, this development’s amenities, designed to make it attractive and very profitable, are community benefits? We’re being scammed.

It will be interesting to see how much decision making will take place tomorrow evening pending Cole’s suggested moratorium on downtown development until a DSP is finalized next year.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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