Downtown Santa Monica (File photo)

With an election coming in eight months, the question is whether the local political powerhouse Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) will be able to maintain its grip for a fourth decade. The venerable renters’ rights organization must walk a tightrope between slow growth or accelerated development.

SMRR leadership as always pointed to the east and said, “If it weren’t for us, this would be Santa Monica,” – obviously referring to the forest of mid-level high rises lining Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A. SMRR boasts that their endorsed politicians have kept this kind of development out of Santa Monica.

However, SMRR affiliated City Council members have been leaning toward being “more development friendly” in recent years. It really began over a decade ago when SMRR politicians voted to allow demolition of the Village Trailer Park (whose tenants were mostly elderly, handicapped and financially challenged) and approve a dense, rabbit warren apartment complex for hipsters.

That was followed by approval of the Bergamot Transit Village, a massive apartment/office complex consisting of five new buildings at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street with 427 apartments, nearly 375,000 square feet of office space and approximately 30,000 square feet of restaurant/retail space

That ill-advised project was met with immediate and vitriolic disdain. Residocracy, a resident coalition, sprung up and collected more than 13,500 signatures to force the matter for a public vote. Smelling blood in the water, City Council reversed course and withdrew support for the project. The developer has since sold the property. 

There has been an increasingly strident debate on “how much,” “how big” and “how dense” development should be permitted in Santa Monica.

About three years ago, MSD Capital LP announced plans to replace its aging Fairmont Miramar Hotel with a new luxury hotel complex. Those plans included a 20 plus story tower and over 100 new, luxury condos.

Public reaction was quick and negative. Hotel neighbors threatened a knockdown fight to limit the size, height and scope of any renovations. MSD has gone back to the drawing board, hoping that a re-imagineering will garner better public acceptance.

In quick succession, announcements were made for a starchitect-designed Frank Gehry’s 22 floor, hotel/condominium for the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

In June, 2013, FelCor Lodging Trust announced plans to demolish the existing 132 room, 8 story hotel and building a new, mixed-use destination comprising of a hotel, residential and retail components contained in a 5 floor, 63 foot tall building, an 8 floor building from 96 to 107 feet tall and a 15 story, 174 to 195 feet tall building situated at the entrance of the Santa Monica Pier on Colorado and Ocean Avenues.

Many community members see all these projects as an end to Santa Monica as an “iconic beach community.” Council has yet to vote on them as they are making their way through the lengthy and complicated development process.

But, the straw that’s got everyone in a tizzy is the Plaza at Santa Monica, a massive, zigzag designed 12 floor mixed-use development proposed for three acres of City-owned property on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets.

Developer Metropolitan Pacific Capital proposes a massive 12 story, mixed use project with 195 hotel rooms, 206,800 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of retail/commercial space and 48 affordable residential units. 51,000 square feet of open public space and parking for 1,143 vehicles in a four-level subterranean garage. Conversely, many residents and activists would prefer a green park at the site.

Despite not having an approved Downtown Community Plan and the public’s strong preference for new construction in the Downtown Core to be no taller than 84 feet, City Council has twice told Metropolitan Pacific Capital to continue planning for its 148 foot tall (12 floor) proposal as opposed to something shorter and less massive.

Residocracy’s LUVE ballot measure now in circulation would limit not only “The Plaza” but establish a whole new set of zoning codes that would clamp a lid on higher construction citywide.

SMRR leaders know that development can be a huge benefit for their causes. The vast majority of new projects in Santa Monica are apartment buildings. Ranging mostly from four to seven floors, they all offer housing, ground floor retail space, and a plethora of so-called community benefits.

Most new proposals are market rate apartments. However, the big plum in SMRR’s pudding is the “affordable” or low-income units promised by developers in return for bypassing height and density zoning codes.

SMRR leaders must decide where they stand on development. Support too much and they’ll alienate the thousands of mostly older residents, homeowners, slow-growthers and the like. SMRR’s traditional ally HERE Unite, Local 11 hotel union can be counted on as long as SMRR supports a minimum wage and continued construction of more hotel rooms.

In the meantime, a new potential constituency has ridden into town.

They’ve arrived on bicycles and quickly advocated for more bicycle and pedestrian amenities along with a philosophy of encouraging street diets, traffic alterations and other measures to make bicycling and walking desirable.

They “young turks on wheels” formed Santa Monica Next, which favors bikes over cars and lots of Downtown residential development to “keep jobs closer to home.” A number of former and current SMRR power-players and housing advocates hopped on the bandwagon, forming Santa Monica Forward. In March, a new “neighborhood group’ the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) debuted. Like Forward and Next, the DNA is in favor of a sustainable, denser, and more urban downtown core.

Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

Bill can be reached at