Urban planning is complicated – for a lot of reasons. As someone who has been active in Santa Monica’s slow growth movement since the late 1980s — and having previously served eight years on the Santa Monica City Council — I’ve seen the public approvals process from both sides. Many factors shape what is possible – macro economics, politics, the environment, the law and more.
I’m voting against Measure LV this November, because LV is a recklessly simplistic approach to these complicated local planning dynamics, and because it would have numerous negative consequences for our community.
Measure LV has been sold to residents as a way of addressing traffic concerns. But LV is not about traffic — it’s about radically alternating the City’s approval process in a way that sheds more darkness than light, and moves influence to special interests and developer money. Because of the extra costs LV would add to most projects, LV would also lead to gentrifying development that would undermine our existing neighborhoods and squeeze out the poor and middle class. Because LV was poorly drafted, it would likely further lead to numerous legal challenges that would stifle the needs of homeowners and renters alike.
History of resident voice
Do residents unhappy with any particular development have options today? Yes! — through the referendum process we can challenge projects we think are unwise, and we have a proud tradition of using this pro-democracy tool in Santa Monica.
In 1993 I was one of the leaders of the referendum against the Civic Center Specific Plan — we gathered 18,000 signatures on two petitions in 22 days — and ultimately got Tongva Park built instead of the 84-foot high office building on the same site. In 1989, a referendum challenging a large commercial office project at Santa Monica Airport gathered signatures so fast, the Council rescinded its approval without it ever needing to go to a vote. Then in 1990 — having just watched this and knowing the residents would gather the necessary signatures to force a referendum — the Council was compelled to put its approval of a luxury beach hotel on the ballot, and that wrong-headed project was easily defeated at the ballot box. Then as most current residents remember, in early 2014 many of us (including yours truly) gathered the necessary referendum signatures to challenge the proposed Hines/Bergamot Transit Village at 26th/Olympic, leading the Council to rescind its approval for that project as well.
LV would promote negative gentrification
Measure LV would turn this process on its head. Instead of reacting to bad development, LV would put practically every development over two stories on the ballot – good and bad. At first glance, one might think ‘no harm, no foul’ — the good projects will get voted up and the bad one voted down. But that is where LV’s ancillary negative consequences come in.
Under LV, anyone seeking to develop almost any project has to plan on putting aside an extra $200,000+ for running a general election campaign – and waiting up to a year and a half for their project to be on the ballot. That extra $200K+ — plus the enormous monthly holding costs for holding onto land until a project can be approved — means significant extra expenses for anyone seeking to develop. Any affordable housing project now has their balance sheet radically loaded with extra costs, meaning either less affordability and/or a very different project. Under LV it’s more likely that $1 million+ condominiums or high-end commercial office space is built, than any housing where most Santa Monicans (or their offspring) can afford to live, or any mix-used projects along our commercial boulevards where most Santa Monicans can afford to shop.
At a minimum, that $200K+ will have to come out of any community benefits package a project would offer, meaning fewer benefits from those who seek to build here. And from an environmental and climate change perspective, with reduced housing affordability, we’ll see more car trips and CO2 emissions from the automobiles of low and middle-income workers who need to drive here to work in our jobs-rich community.
LV would undermine democracy
Then there is the corruption of election process itself. The reality is that in Santa Monica, there are a small number of organizations whose endorsements significantly affect how people vote – and who have the funding to send direct mail pieces to publicize their positions. Under LV, the key to getting your project approved will be to get those groups to sign off on your plan in advance, so you don’t have to fight them during the election. This shifts the locus of power to the small number of people who control those groups, away from the public input process open to all residents. Then once a project gets to the ballot, the laboriously negotiated trade-offs that came out of community meetings will be mostly glossed over into campaign sound bites, dismissing the time and effort residents took to weigh in. On top of this, not only would LV unnecessarily bring additional developer money into every local election, but under LV residents will have to continually organize and fund direct mail campaigns to compete against those developer dollars.
And for what? For a proposal that was pre-dominantly drafted by two people, who made a variety of choices about what went into it without asking the rest of us.
For example, the State of California requires every City to have a certified Housing Element as part its General Plan. By state law, Housing Elements must identify sites for new housing – including affordable – over the ensuing five years. To avoid contradicting existing law, Measure LV had to exempt the 77 parcels currently identified in Santa Monica’s existing Housing Element. But Measure LV lasts for 20 years – what happens in year six and after?
The State of California will not accept a new Housing Element relying upon projected housing sites subject to a public vote, so Santa Monica will have to identify different sites than it has before. Why is that a bad idea? Because it has been the general policy of the City since the early 1990s that we direct future housing into our downtown and the commercial boulevards — in part to take re-development pressure off of our existing residential neighborhoods, promoting and security and stability for existing residents in their homes, and preserving existing neighborhood scale. Measure LV would reverse all that by re-directing development pressure into our neighborhoods, incentivizing developers to evict existing residents and tear down existing affordable housing in order to build luxury condos.
Then there is the harm to seniors. Measure LV exempts senior housing – but fails to specify that it be affordable! That means developers will be given an election-free ride to build luxury condos for seniors, leaving seniors of modest means with few options who seek to age gracefully in their community. Then there is the reckless drafting error in LV, where approximately 1,300 different residential properties — if damaged/destroyed by an earthquake — could have to go to the ballot for a public vote to be rebuilt.
Sometimes love means saying ‘no’
I’ve been a Santa Monica resident since 1984. I love this City. But sometimes love means saying ‘no’. That’s why I will be voting no on LV this November. Michael Feinstein is former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004)
By Michael Feinstein