YOUR COLUMN HERE — Election seasons run on rhetoric. The echoes of development issues, in particular, continue to reverberate. Now, with a new year, and a newly seated City Council, we might set aside some misperceptions and take a sober look at where we’re at. All is not lost.
Make no mistake. There are challenges ahead. Particularly in the area of development, the controversy is not over and the hard decisions have yet to be made. Such decisions need context, though, and shouldn’t be based on panicked over-reaction. Before we chart a course for the future, we need to rationally evaluate our history and our present realities.
Let’s start with residential growth. In the almost forty years I’ve lived in Santa Monica, our population has gone from 88,299 to 92,185. On average, that’s barely one tenth of one per cent annually, or fewer than one hundred new people per year, far less than the number of children born here to existing residents.
As I watch Samohi graduates walk down the campus amphitheater ramp toward their diplomas every year, I realize we’re actually losing our children, the graduates of our excellent public schools, our best and our brightest – in part because we’ve failed to provide enough housing that they can afford.
So where have all those people mobbing our streets come from? We have grown into a regional job center, perhaps unwisely, given our lack of adequate housing to support new jobs. Some unrecoverable missteps were made in the 80s, but the recent record is not so bad.
In 2008, I supported our residents’ traffic initiative, Prop T, which would have limited new commercial growth to 75,000 square feet per year. Prop T polled 18,439 votes, but still lost (as the website ballotpedia.org says, “Major national developers funded a record-breaking campaign to defeat Proposition T”).
However, the underlying idea (and residents!) may actually have won, at least so far. From 2009 through 2014, new commercial development as defined by Prop T has averaged 73,000 square feet per year, just under the Prop. T limit. The question now is, can we continue to hold the line?
For a city with bedrock egalitarian values like Santa Monica, gentrification and displacement of existing resident households are ongoing concerns. In the past years we have seen the eviction of almost fifty rent-controlled households from an Ocean Avenue apartment building that five years later remained boarded up and unoccupied, and the destruction of the uncommonly cohesive Village Trailer Park community, scattering vulnerable seniors.
These outrages must inspire us to unshakable resolve. We cannot continue to lose existing affordable housing. If anyone plans a project that will displace our neighbors, we must stand with our neighbors.
Despite the heartbreakers cited above, though, and perhaps with the help of a temporarily sluggish economy, we have overall seen a decrease in displacements. Since the adoption of the new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) in 2010, which directed housing production to formerly commercial zones, rent-controlled housing evictions under the Ellis Act are down 74% compared to the five years before the Great Recession.
Now that money is flowing back into Santa Monica housing production, we must redouble our efforts to make sure that accommodating new households doesn’t come at the expense of our long-time neighbors. The City Council has already enacted new laws protecting some of the lower-income sections of the Pico and Mid-City neighborhoods, and we anticipate expanding those safeguards citywide with adoption of a new zoning ordinance this spring.
Then, there’s water. No single issue seems to have drawn more attention than responsible water assessments for new development, and the cost of ongoing guaranteed water supplies for existing residents and businesses. No one doubts the drought.
State law requires comprehensive assessment of a demonstrably adequate water supply before major development can be approved. The LUCE included such an assessment, and although the figures are five years old and preceded the current drought, they were based on a twenty-year forecast that anticipated extremely dry years.
What is new is our commitment to becoming water self-sufficient, which requires an admittedly costly investment in more capacious infrastructure to tap, process, and distribute the local groundwater from aquifers to which we already own the rights.
We need to do this whether or not we allow additional development. Remaining dependent on earthquake-vulnerable aqueducts that carry more expensive imported water across multiple fault lines, risking interruptions of up to a full year in water access for our families, is just not a sustainable option.
I begin 2015 with great hope that polarized factions will accept our invitation to come back together and participate actively in consensus-building and proactive planning for our great city.
Those election season echoes I mentioned at the outset are sometimes fragmentary and distorted. Misperceived facts can lead to unrealistic expectations and inevitable disillusionment.
Your new progressive slow growth City Council is committed to fact-based, forward-looking, resident-responsive decision making. Will you help us?
Mayor Kevin McKeown has been on the City Council since 1998, and can be reached directly at email@example.com.