070513 _ CTY downtownThe Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) was created by city staff, consultants, lobbyists, planners and politicians, with managed input from residents. It was approved by the City Council on July 6, 2010. On its first page, it announces its purpose: “Maintaining the character of Santa Monica while enhancing the lifestyle of all who live here.”

Now, I ask, if that’s the goal of LUCE, why are residents spending every waking moment attempting to get the attention of the planning staff, the council and the higher ups in City Hall about the outrageous planned destruction of the character of Santa Monica and the unconscionable planned attacks on our quality of life? Or do they really believe that 20,000 new car trips per day in Bergamot can be turned into 700 fewer car trips by forcing changes in human nature? Maybe if we live long enough, pigs will fly. You suppose?

Please note the LUCE does not say, “enhancing the lifestyle of the next generation of residents,” or, “enhancing the lifestyle of the tourists of the world” or the “development community who live here,” or “young people posting on Twitter.” It says, “enhancing the lifestyle of all who live here.” On the first page of our sacred bible of development, that’s the stated goal.

S.I. Hayakawa, a semanticist and former U.S. senator from California, noted that politicians are prone to adopt language that is obscure and impenetrable to the uninitiated in order to confuse and control the perception of the dialogue.

Take the phrase “human scale.” Most people think that means buildings of one or two stories. To developers it means making the first floor interesting to pedestrians, who then won’t notice the height and density of the building or development.

Try “community benefit,” an idea born in Los Angeles and adopted in cities all over the U.S. It was intended to give the developer a way to negotiate for more than the zoning allows by offering a benefit that the community wanted. In other cities, negotiations included resident groups — neighborhood groups or other nonprofits with a goal in mind such as local hiring or good jobs.

Here, the negotiating has been between the city staff and the developer. No residents have been included. While residents are getting involved in Santa Monica, they have no negotiating power.

Since by law a certain percentage of every residential development must be affordable housing, the number of affordable housing units designated as a typical “community benefit” has been very small. And often the offered benefits enhance the developer’s property rather than benefit the community. So, who comprises the community in “community benefits?” Certainly not “all who live here.”

In Southampton, on Long Island, they’re insisting that community benefits must more than compensate the residents for any new density or height, including contributing to the costs of any infrastructure needed to support the new development. Any enhancement to property intended to make it more attractive to the market is not a community benefit. They point out that any development decision based on the market usually does not benefit the community.

Let’s look at “stakeholders.” In Santa Monica real politick, stakeholders are developers and their allies, the Chamber of Commerce land use committee, and certain political cliques who exert undue influence behind the scenes. Elsewhere stakeholders are defined as anyone who could be affected by the project, and has a stake in its outcome. According to the LUCE, a stakeholder is everyone who lives here whose quality of life is supposed to be enhanced by any new development.

“Land-use planning” or “urban planning” are terms often used interchangeably. The American Planning Association states that the goal of land-use planning is to further the welfare of people and their communities by creating convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient and attractive environments for present and future generations.

Anyone who has experienced the rampant changes in this city, and the hardening of the political process to ignore and out-maneuver residents, is well aware that in Santa Monica the goal of land-use planning is to maximize the profits of developers and cash flow to City Hall.

Residents are out of sync with the goals of the planning staff and the developer community. They listen only to figure out how to thwart residents. At the last council meeting concerning the parameters for the Downtown Specific Plan environmental impact report, the height limits were lowered as residents requested, but the floor area ratios (FARs) were increased, allowing for a much denser Downtown. Because we have not been brought up with FARs in our vocabulary, residents have a tendency to ignore them. But in this circumstance, they’re very important.

Floor area ratios indicate the number of times the square footage of the buildable land of a property can be duplicated in the proposed building. For instance, if your lot is 100 feet long x 100 feet wide, and the allowable FAR is one, you can build 100 times 100, or 10,000 square feet of development on that land. If the allowable FAR is two, you can build 100 x 100 x 2 or 20,000 square feet of development on that same lot. If the FAR is 2.5, you can build 25,000 square feet. By raising and lowering the FARs, you control the density. The higher the FAR the more density is allowed. Or stated another way, the more rental units or office spaces can be built.

In an area already gridlocked, from the residents’ point of view, raising the FARs in the area is insane. From a developer’s point of view, it’s brilliant because it allows him to build more and increases his profits. The lower the FAR, the more resident-friendly the development will be. Fewer people will live or work there, and fewer car trips will be generated. The higher the FAR, the more developer-friendly the development will be, and the more money the property will generate. It’s that simple.


Authored by Ellen Brennan, a retired stockbroker and longtime resident of Santa Monica, having served as the chair of the former Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. She and other members of the Our Town group can be reached at ourtownsantamonica@gmail.com.

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