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Santa Monica Slow-Growth Groups look to Public Vote on Development Issues

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 15, 2015 -- Despite votes by the Santa Monica City Council  to curb high density development, the city’s two largest slow-growth groups are exploring a possible ballot measure that would send big projects directly to voters for final approval.

Residocracy.org, an online-based organization that first flexed its political muscle a year ago, and the decade-old Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), both want high-density building projects to go to residents for a public vote.

Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians said his group will conduct a quick poll of its estimated 2,500 members, and if they vote to place a measure on the ballot – as Melkonians expects –  signature gatherers will begin circulating petitions.

“We’re getting a lot of members saying ‘When are you going to start (the petition drive), when are you going to start,” he said.

Both groups said the council had taken steps in the right direction, but failed to adequately rein in potential development or address related issues.

“SMCLC believes that future large projects must be subject to a resident vote,” the group’s leaders said in a newsletter to members.

Diana Gordon, co-chairperson for SMCLC, said the group would support  a ballot measure similar to Proposition T in 2008, which would have placed a cap on the amount of annual commercial development allowed in Santa Monica.

Projects that surpassed the cap would have been required to come before the voters. Gordon said the measure, which failed, garnered 45 percent of the vote “despite being hugely outspent in a deceptive opposition campaign.”

“Residents are tired of punishing traffic due to overdevelopment and understand that the way to keep our city livable is to give residents the last word on big projects,” she said.

Melkonians said the Council’s vote on the zoning ordinance update (ZOU) “still incentivizes development, still creates density.

“Residents have been saying there is already too much development,” he said. “Are we going to grow Santa Monica so it doubles its population? The zoning ordinance leads to growth of the city.”

The Council on Tuesday gave final approval to eliminate the option of allowing taller buildings on Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, including projects that mix commercial space and housing. It also turned down proposed “activity centers” along Wilshire that would have encouraged high-density development.

SMLC was supportive of some council actions. For instance, representatives said that more than 100 lots citywide that served as buffer zones between residential and commercial sites were returned to their original residential designation.

Coalition leaders also noted that the council refused to green light amendments allowing a third story along Montana Avenue and Main Street.

As it now stands, “the new zoning ordinance is better than the old one that favored massive commercial projects,” Gordon wrote, adding that the group, however, “didn’t get everything we wanted.”

As Coalition officials noted, the council’s support was sometimes narrow, carried by its new four-member slow-growth majority.

Moreover, the council has yet to tackle the issue of proposed projects Downtown that would be among the largest in the city, something both groups are worried about.

Melkonians noted that the proposed redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel  has yet to go before the council and that its fate is still uncertain.

Plans were submitted in May of 2013 for a “mixed-use luxury hotel” that would replace two of the existing buildings with three new ones, including one that would rise higher than 300 feet and include as many as 120 condos.

The proposal -- which was opposed by slow-growth advocates, including the Coalition – is being redesigned and City officials say it will likely to come back to the council early next year.

The Miramar is one of four major private development projects Downtown that the Planning Commission is expected to take up this year, City officials said. They include two other large hotels and a mixed-use residential development.

Melkonians believes any major development approved by the council should be sent to the public for a vote.

The cities of Yorba Linda and Encinitas have such requirements, he said.

Melkonians expects that many developers would stay away from Santa Monica, which is precisely the point.

 “It would mean a lot less development,” Melkonians said. “Only the best projects would go through that process.”

Although relatively new, Residocracy.org has shown its political clout. The organization successfully gathered more than 13,000 signatures to halt a 765,000 square-foot mixed-used development last year.


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