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Bergamot Transit Village Story Not Yet Finished

January 28, 2014

Dear Editor,

Tuesday’s City Council public hearing on the proposed Bergamot Transit Village (BTV) is a once in a few decades opportunity for our community, that goes far beyond the details of what is proposed, to what we are more broadly capable of as a community.

All over the world, people struggle for more democracy. Compared to Santa Monica, many places are in the deep dark ages, as regards the public’s ability to shape its destiny.

Here in Santa Monica however, we are justified in our high expectations for responsive government. And on many accounts, we are wildly successful in meaningfully involving large segments of our populus in community decision-making.

Which brings us to Tuesday night. Despite it being seven years since Hines first submitted its original proposal to redevelopment the ‘Papermate’ site, the project isn’t there yet. That’s no one’s fault – the public process isn’t over. 

Traffic impacts, affordability of housing, jobs/housing balance and the scale of development – all of these issues are still in play. That shouldn’t be surprising, as these issues are always in play in Santa Monica.

The question is, “is there a path to actually achieve the changes we need?” Let’s look at some of the possibilities, starting with affordability of housing and jobs/housing balance.
The BTV proposes 473 rental housing units, 24 to be affordable to extremely low income households (30% of Area Median Income or AMI), 20 to moderate income households (110% AMI), 9 to those at 130% AMI, 16 to 150% AMI and 24 to 180 AMI. This makes up 20% of the overall number of housing units that fall within the range of what the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program (AHPP) calls affordable.

The Bergamot Area Plan – approved by the City Council in September 2013 by a 6-1 vote - calls for 30% of the units to be affordable (with the one ‘no’ vote because 30% wasn’t enough.)

Hines argues that there is precedent in the application of the AHPP for double counting units at the extremely low-income level, so they argue they should be given credit for 25%. And indeed it is impressive that the BTV contains 24 units available from $340/month for a studio, to $486 for a three bedroom.

However, the city’s overall need for affordability at the lower income levels remains great; and the project could be improved in that direction by shifting support from 180% AMI to those at the lower income levels.

But this would not be near enough, because of two sins of the past – the immense Water Garden office park development, with its contortion of the city’s jobs/housing balance, and the resulting gridlock; and the Costa Hawkins Act, which has devastated Santa Monica’s affordable housing stock.

In a vacuum (or in another city with a different history), the BTV’s proposed job/housing balance might be reasonable -- but not in today’s Santa Monica, especially not in that location. Therefore the project has to convert office space to residential in a major way. This could happen by converting one or more office buildings to housing, or parts of one or more buildings.

The Council should give direction to staff to explore a few different conversion scenarios, to see how many residential units might be gained, as well what would be the overall increase in the number and mix of affordable units. Hines could use the time as well, because replacing office space with housing in any/all of the buildings surrounding the proposed Bergamot Plaza is not an uncomplicated matter.

Fortunately from an economic standpoint, housing demand is strong and profitable in Santa Monica, so there is not a market compulsion to build office.

Unfortunately from an environmental standpoint, such increased housing alternatives were not studied in the BTV’s Environmental Impact Report. That is perhaps the biggest issue at this point, because any major changes will likely require additional environmental review. And for good reason.

Since traffic is such a community concern, it’s critical to understand how a shift from office to housing would improve things, both in terms of matching new local housing to existing local jobs, and by more people reverse-community from their BTV homes to work, instead of work in the BTV from their homes somewhere else.

How much of a conversion could be approved without at least a supplemental study? Probably only a limited amount, lest it become easy prey for a successful lawsuit challenging the lack of environmental review.

Therefore, significant changes would likely requires at least a few months to study, and then a few months of public process. That would put it back in the Council’s lap, right before the November 2014 election. Is there any chance of that actually happening?

It’s generally been the City’s practice in election years to minimize the number of controversial items placed before the City Council, once City Council candidates have qualified for the ballot, in order to minimize the politicization of public policy.

Of course the Council and Hines could still choose to hear the item before the election. That would likely require them both to be very much in sync about what they wanted to accomplish – and with something they believed the community was likely to embrace as well. Those are a lot of ‘ifs’.

Or, the Council could decide to hear the project after the election, but before the new Council is installed. That could be controversial, especially if the results of the November elections suggest one mandate, and the outgoing Council votes otherwise.

There are also pitfalls of putting the BTV off to the next Council, to the degree that the November Council election becomes a referendum on one project, rather than an election about four years of public policy.

Speaking of a referendum, it’s alternatively possible that if the Council doesn’t make meaningful changes and approves a mostly unamended BTV, it could lead to a referendum on the project, likely appearing on the June or November 2014 ballot. Without substantially increased amounts of housing combined with reduced traffic impacts, my educated guess is that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) supports the referendum, and it succeeds.

So if you are Hines, what do you do? You start by thinking, your jobs/housing ratio is actually more housing friendly than that specified in either the LUCE (approved 7-0 by the City Council) or the Bergamot Area Plan (approved 6-1); and that the people’s elected decision-makers never requested environmental analysis of even greater housing ratios. And you’d be right. 

You’d also wonder why you should spend additional time and money, when you also have an option to walk away and simply rehab the existing ‘Papermate’ building, sign a major tenant there to a 15 year lease (with a couple of five or ten year options), and still turn a tidy profit. 

Some community members would strongly lament the long term loss of the new street grid that would come with breaking up the 310,000 sq. foot Papermate superblock, and it’s widely acknowledged that redevelopment of the Papermate site is critical to connect the whole Bergamot Area Plan to the incoming light rail at 26th/Olympic.

Others argue that even so, such a loss is acceptable in exchange for preventing what they believe would be otherwise unacceptable impacts.

The important thing to remember for Tuesday night, is that the Council can do more than say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and the possibilities for our community are more than either approving the BTV as proposed, or a rehab of the Papermate site.

And that’s where our ability as a community to rise to the occasion comes into play. 

If we want to fully take advantage of the democratic opportunities we have in Santa Monica, we should rightfully say what we don’t want in the BTV on Tuesday night. But we also should say what we do want and suggest a viable path to get there.

After what is likely to be a long and emotional public hearing on Tuesday night, it’s in the best interest of our community for our City Council to give direction to staff to analyze possible amendments to the BTV, and return promptly with options and timelines. That extension would focus our community on a tangible set of goals, give the public more time to process and give feedback, and give Hines time to soberly consider their options.

In addition to office-to-residential conversion and a deeper affordability in housing, additional traffic-reducing strategies like an on-site food market and lower parking ratios per unit (that would attract more transit-oriented residents) should be further analyzed. Others may have other ideas.

That’s why we have a public hearing and why we need to come ready to ask for what we want.

Sometimes the best decision is to not make a decision, until the time to decide is right. We aren’t there yet with the BTV -- and that’s not a bad thing. Fortunately it’s still up to us to create the next step, because of where we live and what we choose to do with the opportunity.


Mike Feinstein
Former Mayor of Santa Monica

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