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Frank Gruber

End Run with a Blunt Instrument

By Frank Gruber

A week ago Saturday I attended a workshop the City's planning department held at John Adams Middle School to discuss ideas for the future of Santa Monica's boulevards. The workshop was part of the continuing process for updating the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City's general plan.

I sat next to a woman and as the presentations continued, we got to talking. We began talking when data was presented to the effect that the City already ranks high on the amount of tax and other revenue it collects on a per resident basis, a result of the amount of commercial development here. I asked a question about whether that meant that the City should not need more commercial development to fund its operations.

My question struck a chord with the woman. She told me not only that she believed that Santa Monica had had enough commercial development, but also that she was collecting signatures for the initiative, put forward by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), that would cap the annual increase in commercial development to 75,000 square feet. The initiative is called the "Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), and its supporters have been collecting signatures for several weeks.

I told my new friend that I didn't know much about the initiative, but that even though I thought Santa Monica didn't need much more commercial development, I was generally opposed to across-the-board caps on development, because they were "blunt instruments." She handed me some literature, and we never completed our discussion.

I have now studied RIFT, and I can report that I am specifically opposed to it. It is not only a blunt instrument (although thankfully not as blunt as it could be), but also, to mix metaphors, an "end run" around the general plan update. This is not surprising, because the SMCLC, to switch my football metaphor to the defense, has long been trying to "sack" the LUCE update.

Regular readers of this column know that I don't have a high regard for the SMCLC. From the start I didn't like how the organization equates "livable" with only one dimension of urban living, namely traffic, and that it hijacked the term "livable city" from the Smart Growth movement it opposes. More substantively, I don't like how the SMCLC has frequently made rash and unfounded accusations of corruption against some of Santa Monica's politicians and municipal staff.

Last year I wrote a column about how the SMCLC had both tried to delay the LUCE process at the same time that it was trying to stop all development until the process was completed. (see column) Since the City hired Planning Director Eileen Fogarty the LUCE process has picked up steam, and for months it has been attracting to various workshops enthusiastic crowds of residents interested in all aspects of urban livability.

This must annoy the leadership of the SMCLC, who do not regularly participate in the workshops. Based on the timing, RIFT appears to be a means to thwart the goals of the update. If RIFT is enacted, it will do that by increasing the risks of planning any private commercial development in Santa Monica big enough to require discretionary review (other than a few uses like hospitals) too an unrealistic level.

But having said that, and vented my spleen about the SMCLC, let me say that the SMCLC is correct on its main point. There will be little need for commercial development in Santa Monica during the expected 20-year life of the general plan update. But then, this is something I have said before.

As an egotistical columnist, I keep track of things like who in this town said what and when. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am reasonably certain that I was the first commentator on the LUCE update to write about how out of whack development under the 1984 general plan had gone. That was in April 2005, when I wrote a column pointing out that while the 1984 general plan had foreseen about a doubling of office space in Santa Monica, the square footage of offices had nearly tripled -- an unplanned for increase of about 4.5 million square feet!

The good news is that that unfortunate recent history has driven the LUCE update. From the beginning of the process the direction has been (a) to maintain the existing zoning in the city's residential areas, (b) to convert the development standards in the industrial zones -- which are now potentially large job sites -- to residential zoning, to encourage instead workforce and affordable housing in new, walkable neighborhoods, and (c) to find ways to encourage appropriate residential and complementary commercial development along our boulevards -- our transit corridors.

This tri-part philosophy for the future of Santa Monica (with the exception of downtown which deserves separate review) has been obvious from the start of the process. Fears and details, however, not to mention personnel changes in the planning department, have slowed the process down. But I haven't heard anyone say that Santa Monica needs more office development.

But then there is nothing new about that, either. The recognition that the City overbuilt offices in the '80s has guided the City's policies since the '90s. What's remarkable about the growth in office development in Santa Monica is how old a story it is. Nearly all the growth in offices and other employment uses in Santa Monica, which the SMCLC cites to justify RIFT, occurred in the '80s. The recession in the '90s and then more restrictive planning standards adopted in and since the '90s have drastically reduced the amount of commercial development here, particularly offices.

The proponents of RIFT point out that since 1995, commercial growth has averaged 160,000 square feet a year. That's very little compared to what was built in the '80s, but in any case the SMCLC neglects to differentiate the uses. Very little of the recent growth has been the large floor-plan offices that attract the commuters during rush hours that contribute (along with regionally-based congestion on the 405) to our east-west traffic gridlock.

In fact, in the '90s the developers of the Arboretum converted entitlements from the '80s to build more offices into a Ralph's grocery store that residents of the Pico Neighborhood so needed and more than 300 apartments and small retail stores on Colorado. Much of the commercial square footage built in Santa Monica since 1995 has been the ground floor retail and local offices underneath apartments downtown -- commercial spaces that the City requires to enhance the pedestrian ambiance.

RIFT, as I said above, is not as blunt as it might be. It doesn't count hospital expansions or ground floor retail underneath 100% affordable housing developments, and it only applies to developments that require discretionary review, which may protect continual development of housing downtown. (It also doesn't count parking, which is odd for an initiative purportedly against traffic, since nothing encourages driving so much as parking!)

However, just about all other commercial development would count against the 75,000 square foot cap, and thus RIFT would make problematic commercial uses that will improve Santa Monica, uses like grocery stores and other retail, which make life more convenient for residents, small offices for local businesses, hotels (which add a lot to the local economy but not much traffic), and ground floor commercial underneath residential developments that are not 100% affordable -- like the workforce housing we need.

Nor does RIFT -- blunt enough -- make any distinctions about development downtown, which by encouraging use of our bus system, and by anticipating the arrival of the Expo line by 2012, discourages dependence on cars.

Voters in Santa Monica like to sign things, and it's considered easy to qualify ballot measures here. One has to expect that RIFT will be on the ballot. Will it pass?

My prediction is that whether RIFT wins depends on the stance that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) and the organization's majority of four endorsed council members -- Richard Bloom, Ken Genser, Kevin McKeown and Pam O'Connor -- take toward it. The SMRR endorsement is usually crucial for ballot measures in Santa Monica, because of SMRR's influence among the city's majority of renters.

SMRR should oppose RIFT as, inasmuch as SMRR has run the city almost continuously for twenty years or so, RIFT is a challenge to the job its City Council members have done. RIFT is based on doubt that they can be trusted to manage growth in the city.

It's absurd to think that the SMRR council members have been pro-development. SMRR regularly makes the point that the overdevelopment of offices in the '80s was authorized during two years when SMRR did not have a majority. Since returning to power, SMRR has continually trimmed development standards in the neighborhoods, while allowing downtown and neighborhood commercial streets to flourish, and reasonable development in the industrial areas.

For that matter, it's also ludicrous to say, regardless what happened in the '80s, that the other, non-SMRR members of the council -- Robert Holbrook, Herb Katz and Bobby Shriver (and their predecessors) -- have during the past decade or so been anything other than careful when it comes to development.

But already at least one council member, Mr. McKeown, has endorsed RIFT. Why? Does he believe that he and the rest of the council, including the rest of the SMRR majority, cannot make the judgments the voters elected them to make?

RIFT is about power. The SMCLC cannot elect council members no-growth enough for the organization's demands, so it resorts to an initiative with a catchy name and simplistic message -- as if RIFT would solve our traffic congestion.

RIFT would be more ballot box government. As such, if it passes, it would be profoundly undemocratic, in that it would impose on the future the fears of today.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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