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Slow Growth Advocates Claim Victory in Battle Over Controversial Santa Monica Development

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

May 15, 2014 -- Santa Monica’s slow growth advocates on Wednesday said that the City Council’s vote to repeal a controversial development agreement Tuesday night should send a clear signal that their will can no longer be ignored.

The vote came after a grassroots movement gathered more than enough signatures to allow voters to decide the fate of the Bergamot Transit Village, a 765,000-square-foot mixed use project approved by the Council in February.

Council member Gleam Davis, who had supported the project, joined Kevin McKeown, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer in the vote to rescind the DA for the project across the street from a future Expo Light Rail stop in the City’s former industrial corridor.

Mayor Pro-Tem Terry O'Day voted to place the issue on the ballot; while Mayor Pam O'Connor and Councilmember Bob Holbrook abstained.

“Our public process for evaluating and approving development agreements works only if there is accountability, and if the negotiating developer knows there is at least a chance the City Council will say ’no,’” Councilmember Kevin McKeown told the Lookout Wednesday.

“Last night the successful circulators of the Hines referendum forced the City Council majority to say ‘no,’ better late than never, and I think that will mean stronger negotiating and better development projects for years to come.”

Members of local group Residocracy are happy with the result after the group led a petition drive that collected 13,500 signatures – far more than the 6,500 verified signatures required – to place a referendum on the ballot.

“I’m excited that the project was rescinded,” Residocracy Founder Armen Melkonians told the Lookout.. “It was the only choice. 

“However, I’m a little disappointed that the discussion was about politics and not policy,” he added. “I think we have a lot of work to do. I think that policy change should be up to the residents.”

Last February, the powerful tenant rights group Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) voted to support the referendum campaign. (“Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights Votes to Back Referendum Against Hines Development,” February 8, 2014)

“I think the vote was in the best interest of the people of Santa Monica,” said SMRR Co-chair Patricia Hoffman. “We wanted a vote: a vote to rescind.  They [the Council] made the decision that we endorsed.”

In addition to SMRR and Residocracy, the Pico Neighborhood Association was among the neighborhood groups that backed the referendum.

“Clearly the message was sent to City Hall that large developments cannot continue in Santa Monica,” said Maria Loya, vice Chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association and a member of the Residocracy Advisory Board.

Opponents of the project, which has been in the planning pipeline for seven years, argued that it would generate too much traffic, had too much commercial space and not enough housing and lacked enough residents input.

“Its going to be a strong reminder this time that by the time projects get to the council, there has to be more community buy in,” Feinstein said. “Everyone involved in the process has to be heard and involved all the way.

“The community cannot live on referendum alone,” he added. “We have to have something to support.”

Feinstein wasn’t the only former mayor to weigh in on last night’s council vote.

“Hopefully a message was sent to other large developers,” said former Mayor Paul Rosenstein, who served on the City Council from 1992 to 2000.

“The Bergamont Area Plan has a beautiful vision for a new neighborhood, but it was developed as if the surrounding area was pristine -- in other words it was created backwards.  

“The city needs to start with an appraisal of the real situation, like the dreadful traffic partly caused by a surplus of jobs to housing.  Then we need to develop a plan, with real community input, for what we need in the area to make Santa Monica more livable.”

Residocracy emerged as a grassroots response to the Council decision to go ahead with the Hines development project. The group began circulating petitions for a referendum the day after the Council vote.

With their chief goal achieved, some are speculating about the future of the organization.

“This is a big leap for residents to be heard and Residocracy has to be a vehicle for residents to be heard,” said Feinstein. “Their approach is a model often used by national organizations; they’ve really done that here.”

Said Loya, “I believe the organization will continue to promote civic engagement.”

Loya said the group would continue to tackle development issues, including the City’s Zoning update and the Downtown Specific Plan, which will set guidelines for development in the City’s main commercial district for years to come.

“We’re hoping to be part of future development talks and that residents have their voices heard at the beginning of projects and not at the end,” said Melkonians.

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