WILSHIRE BLVD — In a State of the City address following a contentious year for local politics, the event’s two most significant speakers shared some beliefs and differed on others.
The city’s new Mayor Kevin McKeown and outgoing City Manager Rod Gould expressed a similar desire for fact-based community dialogue and an opinion that last year’s election season was heated, but they struck different tones when speaking about the future of growth in the city by the sea.
The Santa Monica Chamber hosted the event and the organization’s President and CEO Laurel Rosen led with a call for harmony, presumably between the pro-development and slow-growthers in the city.
“2015 is a year of possibilities but we need unity,” she said. “If we want to continue to build a strong vibrant city, we need unity. The past year has seen some passionate dialogue about the best path forward for Santa Monica. We need to work together to honor other’s perspectives.”
Three hotel projects are proposed for construction along Ocean Avenue — hotels that the chamber has voiced support for in the past. With the retirement of longtime City Councilmember Bob Holbrook and the election of Sue Himmelrich, four of the current council members have voiced concern over or opposition to the projects.
McKeown, who has vocally opposed the hotels in the past, led with a celebration of the city’s “exploding growth” in the technology sector, which provides 22,000 jobs.
He also noted that the incoming Expo Light Rail, which is officially slated to open in early 2016, may begin service by the end of the year.
He outlined Santa Monica’s plan to achieve water self sufficiency by 2020 before dipping into more controversial topics in a room full of business people.
“Residents of our city are newly insistent on being fairly acknowledged as major stakeholders in our community,” McKeown said, as the Powerpoint presentation flashed to an image of “Simpsons” characters wielding torches and pitchforks. “In this past year we saw the first local attempt at a land-use referendum in decades with over 13,000 signatures gathered to stop the proposed Hines project.”
The project he was referring to would have brought hundreds of thousands of square feet of creative office space to the city. Several major companies — including Yahoo, Google, and Riot Games — have outgrown offices in the city and opted to leave.
McKeown addressed the new Zoning Ordinance, which will dictate land-uses throughout the city for years to come. It’s currently under review by the Planning Commission. City Council is expected to finalize it later this year.
“I truly hope and expect that the completion of our long-range planing efforts will provide reassurance to many in our community who fear that development threatens many aspects of what we hold dear in Santa Monica,” he said.
McKeown also talked about the rising cost of land, the need to create more affordable housing, and to protect current affordable housing.
“Future growth can’t be allowed to displace our existing residence,” he said. “If anyone plans a project that will evict my neighbors, I’ll stand with my neighbors.”
Gould, after receiving a long standing ovation from the audience, started by noting that Santa Monica is thriving on all levels.
In contrast to McKeown’s speech, Gould included higher than average land prices and higher than average rents as indicators of the city’s health.
Other indicators included high commercial activity and high hotel room rates as well as low levels of unemployment, office vacancy, foreclosures, and short sales.
“The last biennial residential satisfaction survey noted that 92 percent of residents rate Santa Monica as a good place to live,” Gould said. “This fact may not have been completely evident in last year’s election season.”
Like McKeown, Gould mentioned evictions but claimed — after emphasizing that “facts matter” — that they are on the decline.
“What about all the residents who are being forced out of their homes since the LUCE (Land Use and Circulation Element) was adopted?” he said. “The truth is that far less residential properties have been withdrawn from the rental market since the adoption of the LUCE in 2010 than previously. Rent Control units vacated under Ellis Act during the four year post-LUCE period were 71 percent less than between 2003 and 2007.”
He sought to combat the claim that Santa Monica’s population has grown greatly over the past 50 years by noting that in 1960 there were 83,249 residents in the city compared to 92,185 last year.
He pointed out that much of the construction that seems to occur simultaneously around the city is for projects that were approved “years ago” and put on hold during the recession and the creation of the LUCE.
“Santa Monica’s vehicle counts are down from a peak in 2007,” Gould said. “In 2013, traffic counts were 20 percent lower than in 2007 and almost 2 percent lower than in 2011. The greatest economic decline since the Great Depression had a lot to do with this but the city’s efforts to offer alternative means to get around have also helped.”
Gould will retire at the end of the month. In his closing remarks, he hoped a wider group of residents will engage with local government.
“Santa Monica is rightfully known for high levels of civic participation yet too often the public discourse is dominated by the loudest,” he said, “and other voices are muted or missing altogether. I hope that Santa Monica will continue to experiment with different ways to engage the widest range of its citizenry on issues that affect the community. The trick is to get everyone into the act and still get action. Further, civic engagement must ask residents to come with solutions and not just complaints.”