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Hines Development Sparks Talk of Referendum in Santa Monica

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

January 21, 2013 -- Some residents are ready to go to the ballot box should the Santa Monica City Council approve the controversial 767,000 square-foot Bergamot Transit Village next week.

With the projects' opponents poised to start collecting signatures for a referendum and the city's most powerful political group, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), saying it hasn't ruled out the idea, a political battle could be looming.

“We are aware that others are preparing for a referendum,” said former mayor Denny Zane, one of SMRR's founders and a member of the steering committee.

“We watch such developments carefully,” said Zane, one of SMRR's founding members. “We haven't made any decisions one way or another.”

Zane has spearheaded SMRR's recent staunch opposition to the Bergamot Transit Village development by Texas-based developer Hines, largely because, he said, the project simply has too much office space.

And Zane said that SMRR intends to turn out the project's opponents next Tuesday. While Zane and SMRR are on the fence about going to the ballot box over the Hines project, others are not.

Armen Melkonians, who made his first City Council bid in 2012, has started an Internet-based group to rally residents against the Hines project and the controversial proposal by computer mogul Michael Dell for a $255 million overhaul of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. (“Former Santa Monica City Council Candidate Takes to the Internet to Protest Development,” January 8) asks residents to sign petitions against both projects and, in the event the Council approves them, has a mechanism to begin collecting signatures for a referendum.

State law allows for residents to call for an election to overturn an ordinance, like a development agreement (DA), if they can gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters within 30 days after the ordinance is approved.

In Santa Monica, that means getting 6,000 unique signatures.

Referenda and initiatives, a process by which new laws are placed on the ballot instead of voted on by the City Council, have been quite common in Santa Monica, especially when it comes to trying to reverse development or preemptively stop it.

The bayside city rarely goes more than a few years without a major development issue being put to voters.

In 1990, after restauranteur Michael McCarty announced plans to build a luxury hotel on the beach,  residents gathered signatures to place an initiative known as Proposition S on the ballot.

Prop S got 62 percent of the popular vote and succeeded in banning future hotel development west of Ocean Avenue.

The drive for Prop S came on the heels of a successful drive to gather signatures supporting the reversal of a Council decision to build a shopping center at the Santa Monica airport. The Council changed its vote before the referendum went to the ballot.

While Melkonians and other opponents of the Bergamot Transit Village claim broad resident opposition to the project, bringing the issue before voters won't necessarily get the results they hope for.

In 1994, Citizens for a Better Civic Center -- led by future Santa Monica mayor Mike Feinstein -- called for a popular vote on plans to amend the City's Civic Center Plan.

“We had an army of people everyday at the supermarkets” collecting signatures, Feinstein said. “A core group of us who were in our early 30s and early 40s that committed to daily operations.”

He said that the message being sounded by Citizens for a Better Civic Center was “let's vote on it.” That resonated with a lot of people, he said.

In 22 days, Feinstein said, the group collected about 17,000 signatures.

The amendments, which appeared on the ballot as Measures D and E, allowed the RAND Corporation to develop its nearby property. Citizens for a Better Civic Center hoped they would be rejected by the voters.

The measures, however, passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, a victory Feinstein attributes to RAND's ample warchest.

Most recently, anti-growth groups mobilized to cap commercial development in Santa Monica with Proposition T, known as RIFT. The initiative was defeated in 2008 after a battle during which opponents spent nearly $800,000 to defeat Prop T. (“RIFT Soundly Defeated Across the City, Vote Analysis Shows,” November 19, 2008).

Will -- or other opponents of the Bergamot Transit Village -- get the numbers needed to start the referendum process? And, if it goes to the voters, will they reverse the Council's decision?

Feinstein said that it depends on how the opposition portrays the project. When Feinstein and other members of Citizens for a Better Civic Center began collecting signatures, there was a grassroots network already in place after Prop S and other movements.

And, he said, “enough of us were young” and could sit outside of grocery stores for hours collecting signatures.

Zane, in the meantime, is waiting to see what happens Tuesday.

“I think that's a bridge we'll cross when we get there,” he said when asked about his plans if the Council approves the Hines development.

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