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By Frank Gruber
July 12, 2010 -- Six years ago when the Santa Monica City Council fired the starter's gun on the process to update the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City's general plan, Council Member Pam O'Connor said that there would be no reason for the process to continue beyond the two years then scheduled for it, and if it were delayed, the purpose of the delays would be to stop development in the city.
Last Tuesday night when the City Council finally approved the LUCE, Ms. O'Connor said that she thought the six years it took to complete it was "time well spent."
That was a generous comment. The LUCE is an eloquent statement about how cities should develop in a post-sprawl century, but with respect to development in Santa Monica, the content of the LUCE was predictable six years ago. Back then it was obvious that the LUCE would concentrate future development on the boulevards and in historically industrial areas in the eastern part of the city.
Here is how in January 2006, when the LUCE process was still close to being on schedule, I summarized the general thinking about the direction the plan would take:
"These truths [that had emerged from the LUCE process so far], in no particular order, are (i) that no one in Santa Monica wants to see much change to existing residential areas; (ii) that nearly everyone wants to plan for the Expo light rail line that will come through the center of the city; (iii) that people are willing to accept residential growth to accomplish purposes such as preserving Santa Monica's diversity and its middle class, increasing the city's walkability, enhancing its sustainability and transit options, or improving its ratio of housing to jobs; and (iv) that there is no need for significant job growth, after the City added more than 20,000 jobs since the last general plan update.
"As a practical matter, these truths will direct development mostly toward commercial zones, including downtown and currently industrial, but future residential, zones near Bergamot, along with pinpointed development along the boulevards designed to give every neighborhood a small, walkable neighborhood-serving commercial district." (See: "I Love LUCE, January 23, 2006)
And four and half years later, those paragraphs fairly describe the LUCE. There is one reason it took so long to codify what was always obvious: politics. There are two reasons why it the process finally came to an end: more politics and Eileen Fogarty.
The politics: as someone who has been observing the LUCE process since its inception, what's a total surprise is how uncontroversial it became at the end. The column I just quoted from was a "curtain-raiser" for a meeting of the City Council in January 2006. At that meeting, the council, after hearing from a dozen or so angry anti-growth speakers, in a 4-3 vote derailed the process, sending everything back to staff and telling them not to proceed further until specific "goals" had been articulated. (For my account of that meeting, see "New Emerging Theme: Distrust", January 30, 2006)
Planning staff regrouped. Additional layers of review and process were initiated. But basically, the goals of the LUCE didn't change, nor the amount of development it contemplates. It's hard to imagine any document coming out a planning process in Santa Monica containing growth levels (expressed as "floor-to-area-ratios") higher than those in the LUCE.
Perhaps reflecting this, there was additional controversy when the City Council was deciding on how much development to have studied in the environmental review for the LUCE. But in another 4-3 vote, against considerable agitation from the anti-growth community, this time the council agreed with staff's request to include "an additional story" in the environmental impact report.
And of course there was RIFT -- the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" -- the measure that anti-growth activists put on the 2008 ballot because they were suspicious of where the LUCE was going and wanted to limit the right of the City Council to approve commercial development. The voters rejected RIFT decisively.
What is stunning about the change in the politics is how, starting about a year ago, the anti-growth community started to speak about the LUCE as if it were its own -- as if, all of a sudden, it was their idea to have F.A.R.'s of 3.5 allowed in the new developments around Bergamot Station.
I was amazed during the Planning Commission's and the City Council's reviews of the LUCE that nearly all of any remaining no-growth ire was directed at trivial increases in heights, as if the heights in the first draft of the document were sacred expressions of the public will, while the anti-growth crowd seemed to forget all about the "extra" story they had fought so hard against at the environmental review stage, or large increases in commercial development the LUCE authorizes on the old industrial lands.
True, Council Member Kevin McKeown raised the commercial development issue, at least in the "Mixed-Use Creative District" if not in Bergamot Village. Since I rarely agree with Mr. McKeown on issues about growth I'd like to take this moment to thank him for doing that, but where were the activists? Where were the RIFT proponents?
Why the politics changed, I'm not sure. Certainly the death of Council Member Ken Genser had an impact, as he had been on the winning side of the 4-3 vote to derail the LUCE process in 2006 and then on the losing side of the 4-3 vote on the "extra story" environmental review. The late Mr. Genser was not one to abandon a position without a fight.
But Mr. Genser was also against the RIFT, and perhaps the anti-growth initiative and its defeat were decisive in changing the political tone.
There was, of course, one more factor, as I mentioned above: Planning Director Eileen Fogarty. She took over the stalled process when she came to Santa Monica in September 2006 and she made it her own, bringing in consultants she had worked with before who were not only knowledgeable, but who all were good at explaining advanced planning concepts to the public.
It's been remarkable to me -- reflecting back ten years ago when the no-growth Planning Commission led by Kelly Olsen, and his no-growth constituents, regularly bashed the Planning Department as "in the pocket of developers" -- how Ms. Fogarty has managed, by being, of all things, a good listener, to change the relationship of the department to the public so dramatically much for the better.
Ms. Fogarty and her department really did deserve the applause they received last week when the council approved the LUCE.
* * *
Just a few words about the vote the City Council will take tomorrow night to put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
First, it was moving that the council members were ready to support a companion advisory measure that would recommend that half the revenues from the tax would go to the school district. It's true that there are practical political reasons for doing this -- the measure is more likely to pass if it's not on the same ballot with a new parcel tax -- but the council members seemed to recognize that Santa Monicans love their schools and that the schools are as important to the functioning of the City as any of its own departments.
Second, Mayor Bobby Shriver should change his mind and support the tax. His argument that the City won't look hard at the expenditure side of the budget if more money is coming in ignores the impact of the economy as a whole. Ever since the financial debacles of about ten years ago, after the dot-com crash, the City has been much more careful about expenditures. The even worse economy now and the resulting demands of the state on local governments are going to cause the City to tighten its belt even if the tax passes.
I hope Mayor Shriver realizes that with the State of California in permanent fiscal crisis, the future of government in the state will be local. The state can't raise more taxes because of political gridlock and because the credibility of state government is abysmal, but, as evidenced by many votes on taxes and bond issues, the public will trust their local governments and school districts. If Santa Monica passes this tax, it will again be a bellwether.
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