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By Frank Gruber
July 6, 2010--Tonight the Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to make its final decisions about the updates to the land-use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City's general plan. This will bring nearly to an end -- subject only to final tweaking and corrections -- the six-year LUCE process.
At the special meeting last Thursday, the council made preliminary decisions about some of the more controversial issues, including revisions to changes the Planning Commission had proposed to maximum building heights.
After Thursday's meeting, planning staff summarized the pending changes to the draft LUCE in an "errata" report that included the council's preliminary changes as well as other changes the Planning Commission had proposed that so far the council has not revised and appears ready to accept. (This errata report is available as an attachment to the staff report for tonight's meeting.) I reviewed the changes highlighted in the report to see how the council has treated the issues that I have focused on in my columns.
One of those was making it possible to encourage developers to leave wider sidewalks on the boulevards (See "The Sidewalks Belong to the People", June 14, 2010). I am happy to report that the council has removed from the draft LUCE specifics regarding building façades on boulevards and elsewhere, leaving the detail to the zoning ordinance. The council retained language requiring that façades help define a boulevard's open space, which leads me to believe that in the zoning ordinance appropriate standards can be enacted that encourage the widening of sidewalks.
In several columns I have expressed the opinion that the LUCE allows for too much commercial development in the district around Bergamot Station and in the adjacent Mixed-Use Creative District. In last week's column ("Playing the Percentages", June 28, 2010) I made the point that regardless of the ratios, it's unclear what the ratios are expected to apply to; do they apply to 20-year targets for the districts, or to incremental new development?
I hoped that this might be clarified in the errata report, but after reading it, I am still confused. Not only that, but based on contrary feedback from members of the City Council are confused, I'm convinced that they are also confused.
Some council members, including Richard Bloom, who made the motion that the council adopted calling for a 50-50 commercial residential ratio in the Mixed-Use Creative District, have told me that the ratio applies to the long-term target. Based on feedback from other council members, at least some of them believe the ratios apply to incremental growth (while saying that the ratio would not apply to each new project individually and mechanically, but that the ratio would apply to the overall amount of incremental growth).
To further muddy the issue, it appears from the numbers in the environmental impact report that the intention in the original draft LUCE was for the ratio to apply only to incremental growth.
Then in looking closely at the language in the errata report, I realized that the issue is further confused. The language from this section of the LUCE appears to say that the ratio should only apply to development above the ground floor, since the language requires that all ground-floor uses shall be commercial. This would mean a considerable increase in the amount of commercial development in the district, since ground floors will probably represent 25% of total development.
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Interestingly, the language that applies the commercial/ratio in the Bergamot Station District is different; it seems to indicate, by using a new sentence, that even though ground floors must be commercial, the ratio applies to the whole district.
Or maybe not. As I said, I'm confused. Sorry for being so nitpicking, but what these ratios mean will be terribly important, as they will control what gets included in the zoning ordinance and in development agreements.
Rod Gould, Santa Monica's new city manager, seems quiet enough, but last week he proved that he is capable of the bold stroke. His moves to investigate the feasibility of a local sales tax increase, and his putting a proposed tax on tonight's City Council agenda, have shaken up the city.
Perhaps the boldest aspect of the proposal to put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot is that Mr. Gould recommends making the tax a general tax increase, rather than a "special tax." While a general tax only requires 50%-plus-one voter approval, rather than the two-thirds vote required by a "special tax," the City Council will not be able to give the voters specific promises as to how the money will be spent.
The lower threshold makes a general tax easier to pass, but only if the voters trust the governmental entity seeking the money to spend it in ways the public would approve. The staff report, in language that is probably as specific as the City can get, says that the money would be spent for "services such as police and fire services, education and school programs, parks and recreation and other general fund services."
No doubt, in making the recommendation to consider the tax Mr. Gould and his staff took into account the 70 percent approval that Santa Monica voters recently gave to the school district's failed parcel tax, which needed two-thirds approval, but did not get it because of no-voters in Malibu. The vote on the sales tax increase would take place only in Santa Monica; presumably Mr. Gould is expecting that supporters of the schools will rally behind it with the implicit promise that considerable funds will be allocated to "education and school programs."
The proposed tax has interesting political ramifications. Recently the city employee unions, in particular the police union, have been grumbling about the City's payments to the school district at a time when the City is looking at future deficits in the budget.
While at the moment one should be cautious about the results of the poll that Mr. Gould commissioned that showed considerable support for the tax -- I hope that the council looks carefully at how the questions were phrased -- a local sales tax could be an inventive solution to both the City's and school district's immediate fiscal issues, with important implications for the long-term as well.
In the real long-term, local taxes, like 2008's countywide Measure R for transit, reflect the fact that the solutions for financing government and public investment in California are going to be local. As I have written before (see "The Commonwealth of Los Angeles?"February 2, 2009), what we need is for the County of Los Angeles to begin to take more initiatives to fund education and other governmental services on a countywide basis.
Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on amazon.com.
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