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By Frank Gruber
Feb. 1, 2010-- I was hit by a H.I.M. (hugely ironic moment) last Wednesday evening as I watched the Santa Monica Planning Commission meeting on TV.
The topic was the proposal by the developer Hines to build a mixed use but largely commercial project of nearly one million square feet on the seven or so acres of the old Papermate factory at 26th and Olympic, across the boulevard from the future site of the Bergamot stop on the Expo line light rail.
Quite a few residents testified against the proposal, or against certain aspects of it (other residents, notably several young people, testified in favor of it). My H.I.M. came during the testimony of Diana Gordon.
Readers of this column (and anyone else involved in Santa Monica politics) know that Ms. Gordon is one of the founders of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. Ms. Gordon and the SMCLC were the proponents of the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), which went down to a solid defeat as Meas. T in the 2008 election. I strenuously opposed Meas. T, and in general my view has been that the SMCLC exercises a baleful influence on local affairs.
So it was a (hugely ironic) shock when, listening to Ms. Gordon's, I realized that I wanted to put more restrictions on a development than she did.
The context is that according to the Planning Department's staff report Hines is proposing that 60 percent of the development's one million square feet be "creative arts office space" (i.e., offices for film and music companies and post-production facilities), and the other 40 percent be for housing and "ground-floor neighbourhood-serving (sic) commercial space". Under Hines' plan, more than 60 percent of the project will be jobs-creating commercial development.
Ms. Gordon told the commission that the City should not permit Hines' project to go forward unless the amount of commercial development will be no more than 40 percent of the whole. But get this: a few weeks ago I argued that even 40 percent commercial would be too much, and that the City should require Hines to analyze what the project would be like with only 10 or 20 percent of it commercial. (See column: "Big Plans")
Maybe someone will invite me to speak at a neighborhood association meeting.
It turned out that Ms. Gordon and I are not the only people concerned about the project's impact on Santa Monica's jobs/housing balance. The planning commissioners had the same issues. Commissioner Gwynne Pugh estimated that the project would create about 1,600 jobs and only housing for about 450 people. The project site is already located in midst of a sea of jobs.
But let me make this clear before anyone thinks I've become a NIMBY: the size of Hines' project should not be an issue. A million square feet of development on seven acres of land adjacent to a light rail stop is good planning. But the City must not let this site become another large generator of jobs. The entire Westside is "jobs rich and housing poor," and the City shouldn't do anything to make the situation worse.
Hines makes the argument that by locating jobs near a transit stop, we reduce more car trips than by locating housing near a transit stop. This argument is irrelevant, since Hines's project would add its jobs to an already huge inventory of jobs (and terrible traffic congestion) near Bergamot.
What we need is housing at this site so that one member of a working couple could walk or bike to a job nearby and the other could take the train to a job somewhere else. We need more housing rather than more jobs here, not only for reasons of traffic, but also to reduce the pressure on housing prices and rents. Yes, it's good to put jobs near transit, but, thinking regionally, when L.A. has digested the current glut of office space, office developers should be directed to build offices in places along the Expo line, like Crenshaw, that need jobs and economic development.
Speaking of gluts, one cannot predict whether, when the economy turns around, financing will be available sooner for housing or for offices. But the economics of this deal are clear. Hines bought an industrial property located on some of the most valuable land in the region with a floor-to-area ratio (F.A.R.) of one, on which sits a 200,000 square-foot empty factory.
Hines could add about 100,000 square feet to that and have a 300,000 square foot commercial project. Maybe Hines will want to do that; in that case, let's wait until Expo is built, and we can evaluate its impact, before authorizing more offices.
But the City is willing to allow more than triple the amount of development on the site. This is a huge economic benefit to Hines, although it's not a "gift." In return, the City wants a piece of the gain, in the form of "public benefits" -- streets, plazas, some affordable housing. But these public benefits will be useless to the public unless the City requires that the increased development rights be used for what the City needs -- housing for all income levels.
If it turns out that Hines cannot generate enough profits from market-rate housing on the site to reasonably subsidize the affordable housing that the City wants there (and needs and legally must have), or if from those profits Hines can't finance all the streets and open space the City wants, then that still will not be an excuse for the City to allow Hines to build offices that Santa Monica has no use for.
To the extent that the public benefits don't pencil out, then the City should enter into a partnership with Hines, and use resources available to it to build streets and public places and affordable housing. But don't use the argument that to get what we need we have to allow what we don't want.
* * *
The debate between Council Members Kevin McKeown and Bobby Shriver over what would be the more transparent means of replacing Ken Genser on the City Council was remarkable for how it exposed both the theatricality and the reality of politics. Like Council Member McKeown, I was impressed last year when the council solicited applications from residents to fill Herb Katz's seat by the outpouring of sincere hopes from "ordinary citizens" to serve. See column
But I can't disagree with Council Member Shriver's argument that the application process masked reality. You can't take politics out of politics, nothing is more political than choosing a council member, and there would be no reason to think that the council should choose someone to serve who hasn't been involved in politics. It wasn't that difficult for Council Member Shriver to rattle off a list of the likely prospects, and now for a few weeks they are free to lobby for themselves and have friends lobby for them. Long live politics.
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