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Quality and Quantity
By Frank Gruber
Under the leadership of new Planning Director Eileen Fogerty, this year the City has been trying to restart the process of updating the land use and circulation elements of the City's general plan with a series of workshops -- three in neighborhoods, one citywide -- designed to emphasize those elements of planning that nearly everyone can agree on.
The "placemaking workshops" have featured presentations made by planning staff and outside consultants who have focused on the importance of the quality of community design, as opposed to what usually gets paid attention to -- the quantity of new development.
Then there's that other quantity question -- parking, the quantity of which so many people want more of, but don't want to pay for. As Olin Ericksen reported in The Lookout, at last week's citywide workshop, a number of residents were less interested in what makes for a congenial urban environment and instead made a big thing about their parking woes.
We all want personal parking spaces waiting for us wherever we drive (and to make us happy there are seven parking spaces for every car in Southern California), but when it comes to the City of Santa Monica, it's hard to know what residents are complaining about. The City already requires new buildings to provide more parking than they need, and the City liberally grants neighborhoods preferential parking.
What else should the City do? Build parking structures in residential neighborhoods? That would be real popular -- and who's going to pay for them?
Back to quality. A lot of the rhetoric about Santa Monica -- from those who are fearful of change -- is all about how wonderful the place is, about how we mustn't lose the "character" of our neighborhoods.
No one can disagree with that, but do we need to preserve the character of, say, the corner of Lincoln and Ocean Park Boulevard, or the character of our aging industrial zones? Can we expect that every stick and stucco apartment building in Santa Monica will last for centuries?
I attended last Monday's citywide placemaking workshop, as well as part of one of the neighborhood workshops that preceded it. Ms. Fogerty and her colleagues -- notably outside consultant John Kaliski -- did a commendable job of trying to explain to residents that as wonderful as Santa Monica is, there is still room for improvement, and that improvement necessitates change.
This is a "realist" approach, because it implies an acknowledgement that change will come, as it always has, and that the best approach toward change is not to fear it, but to confront it and turn it to our advantage.
Unfortunately, however, as I fear Ms. Fogerty will soon learn, it's not a "realist" approach to Santa Monica politics. At the workshops I attended I didn't see any of Santa Monica's no-growth community buying into more development, no matter how well designed. The no-growthers will reappear, like mushrooms popping up in the woods, when in a few weeks the LUCE process returns to City Council chambers, and the council members, or at least some of them, will trip over themselves trying to make their no-growth constituents happy.
Although not so much recently, I have in the past written often about the LUCE process (I've compiled links to my previous columns below), and now that the process is in process again, I'll reiterate some of principles that that have emerged from the process and which seem obvious -- to me, at least.
There are four basic principles that I've heard over and over:
1. Santa Monicans want to keep the character of the neighborhoods they live in the same, although they want to be able to renew and improve their properties, and they want to enhance walkability and access to urban amenities from their neighborhoods.
2. Santa Monicans, except for a vocal minority, expect and do not fear moderate growth, although they oppose convulsive change.
3. Santa Monicans want to preserve the city's economic diversity, which will require development of low-income and workforce housing.
4. Santa Monicans want a sustainable city, which means, among many other things, that although they hate traffic congestion like everyone else, they also want transportation solutions that emphasize alternatives to the car and which don't sacrifice livability.
To these principles, I'll add a few observations that, again, seem obvious to me.
Nearly all of Santa Monica's growth since the last update to the land use element of the general plan -- in the 80s -- has been in the jobs sector. There has been little net residential growth outside of recent development in the downtown. As the population has aged -- our households are smaller and have fewer children than before -- Santa Monica's population has remained steady for 40 years.
Meanwhile, although Santa Monica was always an employment center, the replacement of industrial properties with office parks has led to a large increase in the number of jobs per acre of development (many more, incidentally, that what the prior iteration of the land use element contemplated). The rest of the Westside has experienced the same development pattern, and the result has been an imbalance between jobs and housing that, along with other factors, has caused huge traffic and housing affordability problems throughout the sub-region.
Therefore, for the next 20 years, the lifespan of this LUCE update, there is no need to provide for or to encourage new job-creating developments, apart from the retail that accompanies residential growth or moderate growth in our unique and historic tourist industry.
Which leads to a situation that is not that complicated.
If you combine the principles that we don't want much change in our neighborhoods and we don't need employment growth, with the principles that we want to enhance diversity and the quality of our neighborhoods, and deal with traffic congestion by means of alternatives to the car, then there's not that much left to do in the LUCE process except figure out how to direct moderate growth in housing to our underused commercial corridors and industrial zones.
Meeting Notice: Tonight the City will host a public meeting to discuss possible changes to campaign financing laws; for details, go to this site: http://santa-monica.org/news/citybusiness/ElectoralProcessWorkshop.htm
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