By Michael Feinstein
There are many reasons to vote no on Measure LV. LV would undermine our existing neighborhoods, squeeze out our middle class and poor, increase special interest influence and developer money, and lead to numerous legal challenges and unintended consequences.
But LV’s fundamental flaw is that it’s the wrong answer to the wrong question.
Measure LV has been sold as addressing traffic. But LV is not about traffic — it’s about radically altering the City’s development approval process. The real question then is, ‘what is it about the City’s process that needs to be changed?’
I went to the Measure LV kickoff meeting to find out. Held in early March 2016 (at the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station), there was a lot of positive energy from people wanting to do something positive for their community. That is a great thing about our community, that willingness to organize.
But what I heard from the main speaker that afternoon was filled with canned jingoism that could have been said anytime, anywhere, filled with exclamations about ‘not trusting the system’ and ‘being let down’ by our local elected officials. I left feeling that LV is a distrust-based approach that willfully ignores the facts on the ground, in order to pursue a pre-ordained path. What are those facts?
Over the last six years, the City Council makeup has shifted numerically in the slow-growth direction (Sue Himmelrich, Tony Vasquez and Ted Winterer in place of Richard Bloom, Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver); heights and development standards along neighborhood-adjacent commercial boulevards have been reduced; and all major downtown projects have been rejected and/or are being downscaled and rethought.
Yet LV remains based upon the premise on that our community process can not work; and its advocates use fear of these poorly-conceived downtown proposals that have already been abandoned, as a reason to support LV.
High-rise luxury towers already scared off
Back in the late 2000/early 2010s, three proposals surfaced for high-rise hotel/luxury condominium projects along Ocean Ave. – two remodels of existing hotels and a third an entirely new one. Many of us – myself included – spoke out strongly against the proposed absurd new heights, and against privatizing our skyline with $3-5+ million condominiums.
Responsively, the public process worked. Widespread public opposition was heard at community meetings, public hearings, and via a 2013 community survey commissioned by the City Council. Extreme building heights were also a core issue in the 2014 City Council campaign.
The result? The property owners of all three projects have taken community sentiment to heard. All three are no longer being put forward in the form previously proposed, and are quietly being rethought — without even having to be fought at City Council level, or afterwards through the referendum process. Even when the City’s own proposed project at 4th/5th/Arizona came before the City Council in 2015, the Council asked that the developer return with a 20% reduced project, and nothing there yet is close to approval.
We all live under a legal system that grants significant rights to property owners, including the freedom to propose things the rest of may think are undesirable. In the case of the three proposed Ocean Ave. luxury towers, I think the property owners – tougher with their attorneys, consultants and other advisors — grossly misread the community, and irresponsibly caused unnecessary blowback though their recklessly unwise proposals.
At the same time, our community’s public process worked, and those proposals are no longer being advanced. Despite this, LV is trying to fundamentally alter our public approvals process, based upon fear of something that didn’t actually happen.
Existing Council responsiveness on development standards
Beginning in October 2003, Santa Monica held an extensive process to update the Land Use and Planning Element (LUCE) of its General Plan, with the LUCE being approved unanimously by the City Council in June 2010. Subsequently the LUCE received the state’s highest planning award – “Outstanding Comprehensive Planning Award, Small Jurisdiction” from the California Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA).
The APA described the LUCE as a “designed to enhance the City’s character, by proposing a reduction of vehicle trips, locating new mixed use commercial projects near transit hubs along the EXPO Light Rail line and protecting existing neighborhoods from redevelopment by providing incentives for housing near transit.” As such, the LUCE was to concentrate future housing development in Santa Monica’s downtown and along the city’s main commercial boulevards, and retain existing scale and density in the other 96% of the city.
But in May 2015 — in response to community concerns — the City Council amended the LUCE to further reduce heights and densities by removing the option to build 4- to 5-story mixed-use residential buildings along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards. Instead, City Councilmembers voting in favor of that motion argued the City could meet its state mandated housing growth numbers through building enough housing in the downtown.
This was a significant amendment, by further refining an approach from the LUCE that had already taken over six years to develop. Yet LV moves ahead as if this responsiveness never happened, and still claims we categorically can not trust our local elected officials.
Even with the Hines/Bergamot Transit Village project at 26th/Olympic, our present system of checks and balances worked — residents successfully used the referendum process to challenge the Council’s narrow approval of a large commercial office and housing project there, and the Council then voted to rescind it.
And this wasn’t the first time Santa Monica residents have successfully used the referendum process – it was used in 1989 to stop a proposed commercial office project at Santa Monica Airport; in 1990 the threat of referendum led to defeating a proposed luxury beach hotel at 415 Pacific Coast Highway; and in 1994 support for the Civic Center Specific Plan referendum helped led creation of Tongva Park there instead.
Ranked-choice voting is actual needed democratic reform
So what then is it, that we are so lacking in our local approvals process, that merits turning it on its head? One of the failings of fear-based politics is that it blinds us to obvious solutions. If the argument is that we can’t trust our elected leaders, why not look first at improving the process by which we elect them?
If LV’s sponsors wanted more resident voice in local government, they should have focused first on improving City Council elections, through promoting the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV).
Under RCV, residents can rank all candidates and the results are more directly proportional to the views held in the electorate. In other words, RCV would preserve our currently ability to vote for all seven city council seats, but would also empower the different viewpoints in our city to have representation closer to their numbers – i.e. more reflective of ‘the residents.’
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Responding to serious problems from local traffic congestion to global climate change require thoughtful and comprehensive planning. LV undermines the ability to thoughtfully and comprehensively plan, by adding great uncertainly and extra cost to the planning process, through putting all development over two stories to a public vote.
If we undermine our own community’s ability to plan, we are simply planning to fail. Through the referendum process, we can always say when a project is out of step with our community plan. But when we vote on everything, we have no plan.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica City Councilmember (1996-2004) and Mayor (2000-2002).