When I moved to Santa Monica in 1994, traffic moved. Fifth Street was one-way north. Fourth Street had four lanes of traffic, two moving in each direction, as did Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard. Then the MTA offered Santa Monica $20 million to get more bus lanes into Downtown and the “Transit Mall” was born. We gained bus lanes, and lost many blocks of traffic lanes. Gridlock resulted.

Residents accepted it (not without complaints) because it was presented as a “Transit Mall.” Have you noticed changes that make things worse are presented with attractive names that steer away from the reality of their impact? Pay attention to current “Opportunity Sites” that would destroy any trace of our beach town community. One development proposal for an opportunity site is 320 feet high. Developers call it “smart and healthy growth.”

Currently City Hall is determining the height and density for a Downtown environmental impact report. Developers are pushing for higher heights and denser buildings, in all zones and tiers so that entire opportunity sites could be paid for by the sale of luxury condos.

Three issues are being overlooked.

First, the areas targeted for the most development — Downtown and the Bergamot area — are already gridlocked. More people and cars will make it worse. The traffic mitigation efforts being proposed will not cure the problem. Planners know that.

Second, by building affordable housing and luxury condos in the same development, they’re creating two very different classes of people. As was pointed out by former Police Chief Timothy Jackman, this is not a recipe for healthy neighborhoods.

Third, the cost for additional infrastructure to support all this new development is not being factored in.

At a recent seminar titled “The Practice of Sustainability” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., a gentleman who had worked for a Los Angeles City Council member described the financial and social realities of the development mindset.

As he experienced, development is never about what’s good for a community. It’s always about real estate values and profit for developers. The needs of the community are in last place when decisions are being made.

In addition, community input meetings are about “managing and manipulating public perceptions.” The true intent of the meetings is to stop the residents from mobilizing opposition to a development project. Part of managing perceptions is about the use of language, willingness to ignore past experience, accepting dogma that fits joint goals and hiding dogma in community-friendly phrases.

Lastly, development is disguised as what’s best for the community based on “community benefits” that ultimately do very little to actually benefit the overall good of the community.

For instance, an “aggressive traffic management program” is being called a community benefit. In reality it’s a smoke screen intended to justify cramming more people and more cars in an area past the area’s capacity to handle. It’s intended to persuade the public that the gridlock might be manageable. Jeff Tumlin, a traffic consultant, claimed that an aggressive traffic management program in the Bergamot area will produce 700 fewer daily car trips. However, the EIRs for development agreements already in the pipeline in that area show that they will generate more than 20,000 new car trips per day. City planner Peter James acknowledges that in reality the mitigated goal is the citywide target for 2030. So after gridlock gets worse, we can look forward to 700 fewer car trips in 17 years? Community benefit? This is a joke.

In Downtown, four factions push for higher and denser buildings: the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, Downtown Santa Monica Inc., and a group of four council members, three of whom are backed by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), the city’s most powerful political party.

Their actions are based on two SMRR dogmas: First, that cars are killing the planet and any measure that makes it difficult for people to drive cars is good. They balk at building parking, eliminate Downtown traffic lanes and back more development in areas already gridlocked. (This only seems insane when you’re outside the dogma).

Second, that building affordable housing is their mission, (even when they need to turn their backs on people living in rent-controlled or affordable housing to appease developers). Because developers are required to build affordable housing in each project, more development is good.

The Chamber of Commerce represents developers and likes “bigger.”

City Hall’s addiction to large budgets is a powerful impetus, especially for the building of hotels, which provide property tax revenues, as well as a 14 percent bed tax. Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. collects business tax from all businesses Downtown and has board members with property and development interests there.

Other beach towns see it differently. Santa Barbara residents realized that that their beach town atmosphere was one of their greatest treasures and created ordinances to protect it. In downtown Santa Barbara, 60 feet is the height limit and any building over 45 feet requires “special findings” for approval.

In Venice, court records reveal three lawsuits dealing with whether a new large development can be 45 feet or “just” 35 feet. In Laguna Beach, the tallest new building downtown can only be 12 feet tall. In Oceanside, the height limits range between 27 feet (no higher than the bluffs) to 140 feet in the hotel district, one block from the pier. But, according to John Helmer, head of planning, the hotels have come in between 75 and 85 feet. “If one came in at 140 feet, half the town would come unglued,” he said. Other beach cities have similar restrictions.

My favorite height limit is on the island of Bali. The Balinese took one look at their first high-rise hotel and passed a law that no new building could be taller than a palm tree.

Remember, folks, development is about real estate values and profits for developers. Resident concerns come last, unless we make them first on Aug. 13, when the City Council considers both the Downtown Specific Plan and the Bergamot Area Plan. As former Mayor Denny Zane said, “This is our home. We need to protect It.” Be there.



Authored by Ellen Brennan, retired stockbroker, former member and chair of the Pier Restoration Corp. board. She can be reached at ourtownsantamonica@gmail.com

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