Santa Monica’s elected leaders are split over whether the City should place a development-related measure on the November ballot. The proposed measure would require a supermajority vote from the City Council to amend established rules for new construction in Santa Monica. The city’s elected representatives disagree whether a measure would lead to “development peace” or another war.
Mayor Ted Winterer has become the swing vote on whether a measure will move forward and has asked staff to do more research on the matter. At this point, Councilmembers Kevin McKeown, Sue Himmelrich and Tony Vazquez support a measure to limit the Council’s flexibility.
“I still get the sense of unease that people need to know for a fact that we will stick to our plan,” McKeown said. “There have been some pretty bitter moments and I think we need to take a positive action to put that behind us.”
Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis and Councilmembers Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day are against it.
The debate comes after decades of controversy surrounding large projects in the city, especially projects that included more hotel rooms and offices. For years, those projects and large-scale apartment buildings required Development Agreements, specific contracts that went before the Council for approval. The process resulted in controversy after controversy as residents fought projects that would increase traffic, alter the skyline or develop the beachfront.
“I’ve seen some ugly, ugly wars over 4-3 votes where it didn’t have to be that way,” Himmelrich said. “We’re the only democratic force in the city that’s the line between projects and their realization.”
“We need a little rest from that kind of process,” said former Mayor Denny Zane at the meeting in support of a measure. “We need to have the development community made clear that whether Rick Cole is here or (Planning Director) Dave Martin is here, these rules are going to be reliable.”
Those unelected leaders do not support a measure. City Manager Rick Cole encouraged the Council to move on to other issues now that they have finished the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) and the LUCE, which established guidelines for height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) throughout the city. In his view, those city documents put the development debate to rest.
“Let’s be clear…developers are not welcome to come in here and propose twenty-story buildings when the zoning code says they can’t. We will not process it. We will not allow it,” Cole said.
The DCP allows three large sites to build up to 130 feet, or about twelve stories, including the city-owned property at 4th and Arizona, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and the Frank Gehry project at 101 Santa Monica Boulevard. Those projects will need a Development Agreement from the City Council.
Davis and O’Connor both agreed with staff, saying a measure would create more controversy in an election that will likely concern other hot-button issues. Himmelrich and McKeown are both running for reelection. O’Connor’s term is also expiring in 2018 but she has not confirmed whether or not she is running. Himmelrich is supporting a grassroots initiative to place term limits on the City Council. Potential challengers have promised to make crime a central issue as they drum up support for new faces on the Council.
“There are plenty of issues, I don’t think we need to add development to make the election more spicy,” Davis said.
Rather than address individual projects that exceed established limits, the potential measure would require five out of seven votes to change the rules by amending the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) or DCP to increase height or FAR.
“I would hate to see something like this get in the way of actually making significant changes that would allow us to develop more housing including more affordable housing,” Davis said.
Winterer asked staff to come back with a thorough analysis on how a measure would impact the Council’s ability to encourage more housing development in certain areas of the city. He also expressed concern it may restrict the city’s ability to quickly rebuilt in the event of a major earthquake.
The City Clerk estimates a ballot measure would cost the City about $513,981.