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Council Places RIFT on Ballot, Debates Impacts

By Jorge Casuso

June 26 – Skeptical it would put a dent on Santa Monica traffic, the City Council Tuesday night grudgingly placed a measure on the November ballot that caps commercial development at 75,000 square feet a year for 16 years.

The council had little choice but to let voters decide the fate of the initiative, which garnered the signatures of more than 10,000 traffic-riled Santa Monicans in 10 weeks, far more than the 5,957 signatures of qualified voters needed.

Before the vote, the council held a four-hour study session based on a quickly conducted study of the impacts the measure could have on development, traffic, jobs and City revenues. Supporters viewed the study as an effort to give opponents ammunition to fight the measure.

While the Resident’s Initiative to Fight Traffic (a name that will not appear on the November 4 ballot) would take a bite out of the city’s bottom line and curb development, it would likely have little impact on traffic, the consultants concluded.

“Is it something that will even be perceived? Probably not,” said Council member Ken Genser. “I haven’t heard tonight either how RIFT will improve traffic, or how RIFT is linked to traffic, or what kind of development it will stop that has been the problem.”

“It’s not clear that a cap will provide the kinds of benefits that are spoken of here,” said Council member Pam O’Connor.

Council member Bob Holbrook predicted gas prices would have an impact on reducing traffic and objected to a measure that curbs the council’s power.

“Personally, I think it’s a mistake to remove authority from an elected council,” Holbrook said. “There are a group of people. . .you can never ever satisfy.”

Sponsors of RIFT called the $100,000 study commissioned by the City last month “a sales job” and “a hit piece.”

“This is a propaganda hit piece on RIFT,” said Diana Gordon, who led the movement to put the measure on the ballot. “It’s paid for by residents. It’s outrageous.”

Conducted by consultants who have previously been hired by the City, the study echoed some of the concerns expressed by opponents of he measure. The study, for example, found that RIFT does not clearly define commercial development or “neighborhood serving uses.”

When it comes to alleviating traffic congestion, consultants concluded that RIFT would have little impact because cut-through traffic from surrounding areas will grow much faster than Santa Monica traffic.

RIFT also would discourage potentially beneficial projects, including hotels, which generate little or no additional traffic; medical facilities that complement the two major hospitals; new state-of-the-art movie theaters, and housing that will most likely need to be subsidized by commercial development on site, the study found.

RIFT also would result in lost jobs, higher commercial rental rates and lower values for undeveloped land, the study concluded. It also would result in smaller projects with fewer public benefits.

The measure, consultants noted, does not indicate how the yearly cap (which can be boosted by borrowing future square footage with City approval) would be administered -- on a first-come-first-serve basis, for example, or by a “beauty contest” decided by the council.

The study analyzed three separate development scenarios and projected the results each would have into 2023, when the initiative would end.

A baseline scenario assumes development will continue on its current course, a RIFT scenario takes into account the measure’s impacts, and a LUCE scenario assumes the impacts of the City’s proposed Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update, which guides, but does not cap, development and includes traffic initiatives that use a carrot-and-stick approach.

Although RIFT would generate 4 percent fewer trips in 2023, LUCE would cut traffic by 3 to 5 percent by imposing new development fees, upgrading traffic signals, encouraging carpooling, carving out new and better bike lanes and jacking up parking fees.

Still, “with regional traffic growing much faster,” said traffic consultant Jeffrey Tumlin, “the benefits of both are likely to be eaten up.”

The RIFT scenario would result in 1.9 million square feet of development, a third fewer than the 3.4 to 3.5 million under the baseline scenario and the 3.1 million under LUCE.

Under RIFT, new development would result in 3,700 jobs, compared to 7,500 under the baseline and 6,500 under LUCE. It also would punt a dent on the City’s budget, with new development pumping $17.7 million into the general fund, compared to $29.5 million under the baseline and $29 million under LUCE.

Supporters of RIFT complained that the study -- which is restricted by election expenditure laws to a powerpoint presentation and supporting documents– was not released before the meeting, giving them no time to respond.

“It’s hard to believe you couldn’t get an outline out,” Gordon said. “You didn’t interview RIFT proponents. Only developers were interviewed.”

The supposedly liberal, green-minded City Council, RIFT supporters contend, ignored calls by every neighborhood group in Santa Monica to impose a moratorium on new commercial development while the City updated LUCE, a document that will shape the face of the city for the next two decades.

They argue that LUCE -- which calls for taller developments in designated parts of the city and includes no building caps -- flies in the face of the wishes of many residents, who have given up on the process.

“Residents want less development,” said Susan Hartley, a member of the City’s Airport Commission. The LUCE workshops, she said, are “a charade. We’re going through the motions and it’s already decided what the results will be.”

“There’s a failure to listen to the residents,” said Mary Marlow, who sits on the Ocean Park Association board. “We asked to keep a small town feel. Let’s not become a regional center for media, for hospitals, for hotels. We’re not listened to. RIFT is the answer.”

RIFT’s foes said they were offended by allegations that the study was skewed.

“To attack their (the consultants’) integrity is completely out of line,” said Tom Larmore, chair of the Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the opposition. “Personally, on their behalf, I resent these attacks.

“The problem they have with the (LUCE) workshops is that people didn’t agree with them,” Larmore said.

Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom called LUCE “an extraordinary public process,” compared with RIFT, which was put together by “a small group of individuals without much public process.

“It’s designed to divide the community,” Bloom said. “It’s aptly named.”

Bloom fears the measure, if approved, could have wide-reaching implications.

“If RIFT passes, (it) would perhaps encourage other communities to do the same,” he said. “The consequences could be quite severe.”

Council member Kevin McKeown, the only RIFT supporter on the council, questioned some of the report’s negative implications, noting that it was perhaps a good thing the fewer jobs would be generated in a city where jobs and housing are way out of whack.

RIFT, he said, is not necessarily at odds with LUCE and could in fact work in tandem with the City’s plan.

A cap on development, McKeown said, “forces us to decide which things are the wisest, which things should go forward. It forces us to do it with a certain constraint.

“RIFT doesn’t stop all growth, it paces and manages it,” McKeown said. “It cuts commercial development by half and that’s a good thing.”

After voting to place the measure on the ballot, the council chose McKeown as one of the supporters whose name will appear on the ballot statement for the measure and O’Connor and Holbrook to be among those signing the opposing view. None of them is facing reelection on November 4.


“Personally, I think it’s a mistake to remove authority from an elected council.” Bob Holbrook


“This is a propaganda hit piece on RIFT.” Diana Gordon


“If RIFT passes, (it) would perhaps encourage other communities to do the same. The consequences could be quite severe.” Richard Bloom


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