By Santa Monica Forward

In the mid-1980s, Santa Monica needed to do something about its downtown. By most measures, it was failing. People weren’t coming to shop, businesses were struggling, and it was generally regarded as unsafe, especially after dark.

To save the downtown, a grassroots effort by residents, members of the City Council, local merchants, and other stakeholders came together. With many — and sometimes competing — visions for the downtown’s future, the process of creating a plan was a long one, full of compromises, creative thinking, and real, democratic planning.

Spoiler alert: it worked brilliantly. The process of democratic planning pioneered in that moment has remained a fundamental part of Santa Monica’s civic culture in the decades that followed. However, our democratic planning culture is facing a major challenge in the form of the so-called Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative, which would require a voters to decide on nearly every project over 32 feet tall — or about two stories — tall.

The LUVE initiative, its supporters claim, will make planning more democratic. But it actually does the opposite. Instead, it would turn our thoughtful, grassroots planning process into an endless parade of well-funded political campaigns. And given the cost of these political campaigns and the high financial risk in running them, it would effectively prohibit smaller, mid-rise housing projects from even being proposed.

The spirit of compromise, thoughtful dialogue, and meaningful planning would be buried under an avalanche of glossy political mailers, superficial slogans, and copious amounts of money.

The reality is that LUVE hurts our community more than it helps by turning almost every potential change in our city into a political competition.

For example, under the LUVE initiative’s standards, St. Monica’s recent renovation of its parish would not have been able to go forward without first having had to wage a costly political campaign, since it is taller than the strict 32-foot limit set in the initiative. The same is true of a recent addition of a science building to the Crossroads campus.

There are plans to create more than 60 new affordable apartments at 1626 Lincoln Blvd. that will rent to households making between $18,000 a year (for one person) and about $40,000 (for a family of four).

The project, which will be managed by Santa Monica’s lead nonprofit affordable housing provider, Community Corporation of Santa Monica, would be impossible under the LUVE initiative’s standards. For one, it provides more affordable homes than the LUVE initiative’s exemption for affordable projects — 50 units or less — allows. Secondly, it is only financially possible because it is being paid for as part of a new market-rate housing project being built down the street at 500 Broadway. Under the LUVE initiative, this opportunity simply wouldn’t be feasible.

In all of the examples, and any other significant project in the city, Santa Monica requires robust community outreach. St. Monica’s, Crossroads, and the project at 500 Broadway all have, or are currently undergoing, lengthy outreach processes during which a wide range of voices are heard: people who live here, work here, and do business in Santa Monica.

Our grassroots planning process lets the community decide and weigh in on how to make projects better before they go before our appointed boards and commissions and elected representatives for final approval. Our elected representatives, appointed officials, and city staff are responsible for understanding the nuances of good short- and long-term planning, ensuring consistency with our Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) — adopted unanimously after nearly a decade of community outreach, discussion, and compromise — process, and responsibilities under state law.

The LUVE initiative proponents will say that without it, residents have no say in the approval of new projects, yet they ignore the many residents who speak out in support of those projects.

Further, in the last four years alone, at least five new projects — combined, they would have added about 1,000 new apartment homes to our community — were pulled as a direct result of community opposition. No up-down vote was required.

The days in which we could come together and constructively disagree about how to improve our city, hash out our differences, and build a workable consensus would be over, displaced instead by an permanent campaign season for development.

Santa Monicans are sophisticated and thoughtful people. We are civically engaged and we deserve a process that respects our civic culture. LUVE is a blunt instrument and perpetuates a “with us or against us” political culture unbefitting of our community. We deserve better.

Judy Abdo, Juan Matute, Ernie Powell, Leslie Lambert, Cynthia Rose, Jason Islas, Craig Hamilton, Elena Christopoulos, Richard Brand and Irene Zivi for Santa Monica Forward. Read more at santamonicaforward.org.