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LUVE is Strange: How a Local Initiative Mistook a View for a Soul

By Brian Burke

October 28, 2016 -- It is strange how the urbane and sophisticated city of Santa Monica, “fortunate in its people and fortunate in its land,” as its motto rightfully proclaims, should have such a hard time planning its future.

It’s not that we don’t have plans. We do have plans, good plans. The Downtown Community Plan, for example, is exemplar among urban designs, imaginative yet practical, sophisticated yet humane. The community plan utilizes intelligent state-of-the-art design elements such as Smart Growth and Complete Neighborhoods, proposing, in short, nothing less than the legendary city on a hill, a beacon of urban development.

Yet disillusionment rests heavy on the city and casts a dark shadow over the dreams of City leaders. To many we are not a city on a hill, but a city in decline, full of dark alleys with developers roaming the streets and politicians on the dole.

Residents are in a rebellious mood, and chief among them is one man, Armen Melkonians, an articulate local resident who rose to notoriety by asking pointed questions about growth. For example, “Why,” Melkonians asks, “why do we need more housing in Santa Monica?”

It is a strange question and quite remarkable for it goes beyond the usual fights about growth and gentrification and raises serious doubts: do we even need housing?

Energized by such doubts, Melkonians introduced a landmark initiative called LUVE, “Land Use Voter Empowerment,” now Measure LV on the November ballot. LUVE reflects Melkonians’ doubts about our need for housing.

Melkonians’ question is strange to me; for as I look around our city (and elsewhere in Southern California) all I see is a massive housing shortage. This is confirmed by an independent Legislative Analyst’s Office which estimates that the state of California needs to  build 100,000 more units every year to meet demand.

Many state legislators and our governor himself strongly concur with that estimate. Governor Brown sees a titanic need for housing, so titanic in fact he’s offering to suspend environmental standards and cut wages to spur the building of more housing. To our Governor it’s simple economics: the supply of housing is unable to keep pace with demand, and prices are soaring.

In Santa Monica the price of a home is beyond the pale, and apartments are beyond affordability for most of our workers. A local fireman recently told me that only a small number of firefighters actually live in Santa Monica.

It is curious for Melkonians to ask why we need housing when there is such an overwhelming need for housing, especially among our local workers who trek to and from homes far outside the city, causing the massive traffic jams we all lament.

If Melkonians can’t see any need in Santa Monica, he really can’t see our city for what it is: a beautiful and immensely fortunate land, strong in natural assets, sophisticated in planning, functional in governance, and very, very popular — across the world.

Millions of people want to work, live and play in Santa Monica because it has a climate as perfect as any in the world: when it’s cold it's a morning fog and when hot an ocean breeze. The air is crisp and clean, due to a steady on-shore flow from the Pacific.

Melkonians’ no-demand argument, especially in regards to Santa Monica housing, seems a little daft, reminiscent of a theory in the movie “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner hears a voice calling to him, “if you build it, they will come.” The inverse of this, "if you don’t build it, they won’t come,” seems to sum up Melkonians’ theory on growth. If developers would just stop developing, people would just stop coming, and life would go back to the way it always has been. “What housing problem?”

Melkonians may look at our need for housing and scratch his head, but we must do better. We must confront demand and recognize our needs. Few today would deny the fact that poor and middle class residents are being squeezed out of the housing market. In Santa Monica every year renters must dedicate more and more of their income to rent.

As a city we need to go beyond Melkonians’ question and do the hard work of governance. We must ask our own hard questions. We must ask, for example, at what point does the demand for high-priced condos trump the need for affordable housing? At what point will we expect those who benefit from our fortunate place in this world to contribute a larger share to our affordable housing needs?

At what point will the city shake off its loss of state redevelopment funds, and find more reliable sources for affordable housing? Yes, the city is making progress, but Santa Monica is still far behind its mandate from Proposition R, a 1990 community requirement, one of the truest expressions of our soul, that the city make sure 30 percent of all new housing is affordable.

Melkonians’ ‘no demand’ theory betrays at best an ignorance of the complexity of affordable housing, but it does serve a purpose. It is basically just a scaffold, an intellectual mast upon which LUVE hoists its two basic propositions: direct democracy and preservation of the two-story.

Direct Democracy

At the very topmost of the LUVE’s mast flies the banner of direct democracy. Melkonians seems to use his ‘no demand’ theory to argue a proposition: if there is no demand for housing, and yet housing is built, then something is seriously wrong, some other force, an Oz behind the sceen, is manipulating growth.

In LUVE the answer is clear. It is city hall. Corruption and duplicity, it is suggested, are the real causes for growth. In one memo to supporters Melkonians goes as far as naming names, specifically four members of the city council who, it suggests, are on the dole with one of the big developers in town. But I suspect Melkonians’ assertion is not a criminal complaint so much as a rhetorical flourish, more Trumpian than true, more bombast than argument.

In any event, LUVE’s first proposition proposes a remedy to this corruption: voters must seize control from our municipal leaders and take power into their own hands. In the words of LUVE, “Any development agreement approved by the City Council would not become effective unless and until it was approved by the voters.” One could see this proposition as a grand gesture for democracy or a bold grab for power.

For me, as a local voter, one thing is clear: accepting such a heady responsibility will be a daunting task. If I have to vote on every major development, I will need to be knowledgeable, and just, and fair. I will need to be -- or at least pretend to be -- a professional planner. I will need to focus on details, evaluate impacts, and comply with state laws. I will need to weigh divergent political viewpoints, balance demand against need, all the while keeping an eye to the future, to the city as a whole.

I can’t speak for my neighbors, but to foist such responsibilities on an individual seems, well, abusive. If anything, it’s ironic, for did we not just elect the city council and told them to go forth and perform the tasks of governance. So now we renege on the deal and reassign the tasks to ourselves, like intercepting a football we just passed.

Unlike City leaders, who have a legal mandate to do what is best for the city, an individual resident has no such compulsion, nor do their neighborhood associations. We all are free to think for -- and of -- ourselves, even though that might erode our cohesiveness as a community and tug at the values that give us meaning.

Advantage to “The Alreadys”

But consider also, if I live in an established neighborhood, one more rooted, more organized, more vociferous, with great resources, if I am one of the “Alreadys,” you might say, those who have already arrived and claimed their place in this fortunate land, well then sure I might vote, and vote many times, if only to keep those rabble at bay.

Voters in poorer more transient neighborhoods, however, those struggling to make ends meet, carrying the burden of a young family, unable to attend to every detail, unable to commit to the time, unable to muster the interest as they struggle to stay afloat, they may not vote. This gives the Alreadys a distinct advantage.

In the end, taking power from the city council creates a dysfunctional vacuum. In times when demand is high, when developers are pushing hard for the best deals for themselves, we need leaders who are willful, determined and able to push back and not be intimidated by such power brokers. They must be strong and insist on the values that define our soul as a city, values such as sustainability and affordability and open spaces.

In the words of Rick Cole, City Manager, “We actually can mandate better materials. We can mandate better design. We can mandate public amenities.” These words to me reflect a new commitment to putting the community first.

In Preservation of the Two-story

The second banner of LUVE unfurls like a legend. I’m not certain when the legend first appeared in the chronicles of our city’s history, but I suspect it was in the post-war era, the 40s and 50s, at the beginning of the housing boom when a lot of cheap two-story apartments were being built.

In any event the two-story legend is enshrined in the LUVE initiative: “A Major Development Review Permit would be required for projects exceeding 32 feet (or two stories).” In other words, don’t build anything over two-stories unless you want to invite a major public review with all the failings that implies. (It should be noted that in some unique designs, a planner has informed me, architects might actually be able to squeeze in a third story.)

According to LUVE’s two-story legend the depth of our spirit will henceforth be measured by the height of our buildings. Laying low and staying low will be our new mantra, a legend for future generations.

In and of itself, the 32-foot limit makes no environmental, cultural, architectural, or moral sense. There is no inherent reason why a two-story is better than a three-story. In fact, three and four stories have much more going for them in regards to sustainability and smart growth.

When LUVE limits all new buildings to two-stories it permanently limits, removes from the market, any additional housing that could have existed on that location. LUVE’s height restriction will essentially limit the supply of housing in our community which, as mentioned before, will only inflate prices.

This relationship supply and demand seems constant across the world. For example, according to The Economist, "A recent analysis by academics at the London School of Economics estimates that land-use regulations in the West End of London inflate the price of office space by about 800 percent; in Milan and Paris the rules push up prices by around 300 percent.”

Density is a basic principle of Smart Growth and the chief antidote to urban sprawl. A community builds clusters of new housing incorporating stores and transit to save energy and water. Density allows a city to become more walkable, bikeable and personable which alleviate traffic and reduces pollution.

Denying the possibility of Smart Growth in our city is one thing, but what grieves me most about LUVE is its blind infatuation with the two-story. In the midst of this praise, it fails to notice the deteriorating condition of many of the two-stories.

There are perhaps hundreds of two-story apartments built in the middle of the last century with neither insulated walls nor insulated windows, with neither energy efficient air-conditioning, nor water saving dishwashers. In some the windows barely function. On a hot day in a room without insulation and with no air, it could get insufferable. I remember once helping my neighbor, a single elderly lady, whose windows were sealed shut from layers of old paint.

Traffic and Affordability

I’ve been critical of LUVE’s two main propositions -- direct democracy and the preservation of the two-story. Along the way I passed over two other arguments of the initiative: its hollow gesture of affordability (as if developers would seriously abandon their interests and build 100% affordable nonprofit housing because, well, LUVE suggests it as a possibility) and the claims that LUVE would cut traffic (as if our local workers who now live outside of town and are the prime cause of our rush hour traffic, will cease driving to work, or that tourists, the other major cause of traffic, will cease visiting our town).

Thus in both large and small ways the logic of LUVE quickly evaporates. If LUVE’s main propositions and its various tributaries are dry of substance, why does the initiative resonate with so many people?

It’s All About the View

One basic reason to love LUVE, despite all its errors, is that it may preserve a view, especially for all those who already have a view. This, in fact, may be its prime objective, the truest meaning of LUVE and the essence of its supporters: they really love their views, more than seemingly anything else.

I like my view, too. If I stand in my second floor loft near Pico Blvd I have an unobstructed view for several blocks to the east across my neighbors’ modest one story home and beyond to the Jacaranda blossoms on 11th and beyond there I can see heady ficus trees and leggy eucalyptus. In the evening my wife and I can watch the crows make their diurnal journey east to their roosts in the pines and oaks far off.

But density also matters, and affordability and sustainability matter. Why should a view matter so much to me that it trumps sustainability for the city as a whole? LUVE finds meager justification in this one point, its commitment to the two-story legend and its promise to preserve a view at the expense of all our other defining aspirations. LUVE mistakes a view for a soul.

St. Monica

Today in Palisades Park, a statue of St. Monica stands on the edge of the ocean. She looks as if she just arrived from the heart of the Pacific, arms folded, hands held in prayer, offering her blessings to all: to the newcomers, and the old-timers, to those north of Wilshire and to those south of Wilshire, to the homeless and to those on the verge of homelessness, to those who work among us but cannot live among us, and perhaps, in her prescient wisdom, to all those who have yet to arrive.

St. Monica is known for the tears she shed for her son, Augustine. And when our city founders discovered springs weeping from the ground nearby, they adopted St. Monica as our namesake. So, perhaps it is fitting to wonder for whom does St. Monica weep today? Does she weep for the Alreadys who fear losing their view, or those whose sole aspiration for our city is the preservation of a two-story?

I suspect St. Monica weeps most of all for the ocean, for she knows perhaps more than anyone how important the ocean is to us, how our identity goes beyond the city emblem.

St. Monica knows that our soul resides not in the two-story but in the depths of a mighty ocean, an ocean that is now suffering at the hands of a deadly transformation, a serious decline in bird populations and marine life, all due, no doubt, to climate change, to rising CO2 levels and the consequential acidification of our ocean, which is to say, all due to our failure to live sustainably.

On the subject of sustainability LUVE is mute. It does not see that our own production of CO2 is harming our ocean, despite our prevailing winds. It rejects the idea that density and living above the two-story is a key solution to protecting the ocean and meeting our needs for affordability.

If Santa Monica truly has a soul, I believe there’s no better expression of it than in our commitment to the ocean. In that commitment we can become an international leader, at the forefront of global sustainable change. Such a leader would mandate more affordable housing and require every building to be 100 percent sustainable with zero dependency on outside energy.

Today such a goal is possible. It wouldn’t require a miracle from St Monica, only a commitment from us, in a plan.

Editor's note: Brian Burke is a local resident, an independent voice not affiliated with any group for or against the LV measure. He is a retired teacher-principal last employed at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

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