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Santa Monica Sounds Off on New Survey Results

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By Jason Islas
Lookout reporter

March 3, 2014 -- Weighing in at 637 pages, Santa Monica’s latest survey and report intended to gauge residents’ attitudes toward development reveals a community divided over whether the city is heading in the right direction.

The City-commissioned telephone survey of 500 households also shows a community ambivalent about the possible construction of three new hotel towers, ranging from 195 feet to more than 300 feet. And it shows a community anxious about the future of traffic and parking. ("Santa Monicans Divided About Height, Support Bergamot Arts District Development, Survey Shows,” February 28, 2014)

Despite its bulk and detail, the report has spurred a debate about its merits among civic and community leaders.

Some civic leaders interviewed by The Lookout believe the survey results offer some valuable insights.

“The survey provides a wealth of information on local attitudes and preferences and breaks it out by demographic groups and location in town,” said Mayor Pam O'Connor.

Kathleen Rawson, who heads the agency that runs Downtown, agrees. “The study provides strong insight into the opinions of our residents, and we applaud the Council for taking this bold step.

“While the document indicates the City needs to carefully contemplate new development, it also reflects some openness to development based upon specific merits and features,” said Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM).

But some Council members who in September unanimously approved the $32,000 survey think it will reveal little about the attitudes towards what is widely considered Santa Monica’s most pressing issue.

“Within the margin of error inevitable given the small sample size, I’m confident the answers reflect how 500 people felt about the questions the way they were worded,” said Council member Kevin McKeown,.

“As with any survey, interpretation will include more spin than an Olympic figure skater,” he said.

Frank Gruber, a long-time political observer and former columnist for The Lookout believes the survey will provide little valuable insight.

“After reviewing the ambiguities in the new City survey, it's apparent that governing by opinion poll is not only bad governing, but also impossible,” Gruber said.

The survey showed that about 34 percent of those asked thought the city was going in the “wrong direction” and about 42 percent said it was headed in the “right direction” with nearly 20 percent saying it wasn’t going either way.

The Council originally asked staff to look into polling Santa Monica residents last May as debate over proposed development had reached a fever pitch, with community meetings becoming increasingly contentious. (“Santa Monicans Get Rowdy at Miramar Redevelopment Meeting,” May 17, 2013)

City officials commissioned Santa Monica's branch of The League of Women Voters to oversee the process in order to assure that the survey was as objective as possible.

“What we witnessed was a good-faith effort by city staff and Mr. Godbe to be as objective in their methods and as transparent to the community as possible,” said Ann K. Williams, president of the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica and a former Lookout editor.

“We are satisfied that the information generated by the survey is unbiased and will be helpful to city staff, city leadership and to the community as a whole as Santa Monica navigates its future with respect to development,” she said.

The results, however, have done little to mellow the tenure of the discussion of development in Santa Monica.

“The survey results just confirm what we have been saying for a long time: Santa Monica residents do not want higher buildings,” said Reinhard Kargl, vice-chair of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition, one of the city's seven neighborhood groups.

“They do not want more density and more traffic. They want less traffic and better parking,” Kargl said. “They like their historic buildings and dream of more parks and open space -- all in that order.”

Former mayor Michael Feinstein sees the survey results as reinforcing his belief that “a large majority of residents do not want tall towers with multiple upper stories full of luxury condos in our Downtown, and there is no amount of community benefits that will get them to accept it.”

Three hotels are proposing major projects along Ocean Avenue that would include towers with luxury condos. (“Condos Are Essential to Building Santa Monica's New Luxury Hotels, Developers Say,” July 30, 2013)

About 58 percent of those surveyed said they thought Santa Monica's skyline had too many tall buildings.

Alan Epstein, part owner of the 86-year-old Miramar Hotel hotel, who with his partners is preparing to submit revised plans for the proposed $255 million overhaul, said he had not yet had a chance to review the 637-page report on the survey results.

“We do know, however, that in our ongoing dialog with Santa Monica residents about the proposed Miramar Plan over the past four years, they have told us that they support a thinner, less dense building with large open spaces that protect views for 99 percent of Santa Monica residents,” he said.

The last iteration of the Miramar Plan includes a tower more than 300 feet tall to replace the shorter, bulkier building that took up much of the site’s footprint in the original proposal.

“We anticipate that support for the Miramar Plan will grow considerably when we unveil Cesar Pelli's exciting new design next month,” Epstein said, referring to the internationally renowned architect hired to design the project.

Not everyone is convinced that the survey was a good faith effort.

Kargl points to a key question about the Bergamot Area Plan that set the parameters to transform the city's old industrial corridor into a mixed-use creative arts district. (“Santa Monica City Council Adopts Bergamot Area Plan, September 12, 2013)

Residents polled were told - - using language in the Plan adopted last September – that it “fosters the creation of a walkable, urban art-and transit-oriented neighborhood that allows a mix of housing and creative uses, supported by restaurants and retail to serve people in the area.”

“Even when highly manipulative and leading questions are asked, for example with regard to the 'Bergamot Area Plan,'” Kargl said, “the survey results show a crass lack of fully committed support.”

About half of those surveyed said they would “strongly support” and another 25 percent said they would “somewhat support” such development.

One such project -- the 765,000-square-foot Bergamot Transit Village at 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard -- is currently the subject of a referendum drive. (“SMRR, Neighborhood Groups Rally for Anti-Development Referendum,” February 14, 2014)

Said local activist Tricia Crane, “The only survey of residents that matters at this point is the Residocracy referendum petition on the Hines development.”

The full survey results, questions and demographic analysis is available on the City's website.

Mayor O'Connor said the Council will hold a study session on March 18 to allow the community and Council members to discuss the survey results.

Rawson welcomes that opportunity. “This study is only the start of an ongoing dialogue we need to have with our entire community to shape our town for the next generation,” she said.

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