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Meistering Fear

"Our town is one of the most desirable places to live on the entire planet. That has attracted money-meisters from around the globe, eager to build in Santa Monica, and they're not interested in building truly affordable apartments like the ones we live in." - From the article, "I Love LUCE - What's at Stake," by Councilmember Kevin McKeown, in the April 2005 edition of "Renters Write," the newsletter of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights

By Frank Gruber

Last week I said I would write this week about where to put the housing Santa Monica needs to house the families of least some of the 21,000 workers who came to work in Santa Monica the past 25 years, but I am going to hold off.

I mean, why talk reality when what people care about is politics?

There is text and subtext when you're dealing with the City's landmark update of the land use and circulation elements of the general plan. You saw the text last week when the City Council and the Planning Commission met in joint session to respond to the Emerging Themes Report.

Everyone was conscientious. There was a little jockeying between council members Herb Katz and Kevin McKeown over whether the data supported a conclusion that there was a consensus among "the residents" that height limits should remain the same, but for the most part everyone on the dais agreed that the staff and their consultants did a good job tabulating public sentiments, but that they needed to talk to more "stakeholders" and gather more information.

But the subtext was political. Both of the political engines active in Santa Monica are trying to figure out how the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update process is going to play out politically at the same time that they're trying to figure out how to play it politically.

The Chamber of Commerce engine is taking the high road (or I should say, not to mix the metaphor, the high track). So far the Chamber's "General Plan Task Force" has been relentlessly constructive. They sent an eleven-page letter to the Council and the Commission courteously reminding them that the Emerging Themes Report managed to ignore such little items as municipal revenues, employment opportunities, housing supply, tourism, healthcare and the arts.

Cynics (or non-cynics who happen to be the Chamber's political opponents) might take the view that this was window-dressing for rapacious capitalism; or at least the Chamber's canny recognition that in the absence of many pro-business votes in Santa Monica, it might pay to be noble.

Nonetheless, the letter was well received on the dais across the political spectrum, and the Council and the Commission directed staff to consider these other issues. (In fairness to staff, their position is that those issues were always part of the agenda for the next phase of the process.)

Okay, so that's the Chamber' track. But where is the SMRR engine chugging?

As they say, it's all downhill from here. Well, not all; but ruminate on that quote above from Councilmember McKeown.

Money-meisters from around the globe?

Who is he talking about? Craig Jones, who has built most of the apartments downtown? No, can't be him, ole Craig is Amur'cin, and, heck, he's built a couple hundred affordable apartments, too, along with those "luxury" units that people like my retired college professor father and my mother live in.

Maybe Councilmember McKeown meant Howard Jacobs who got that mixed-use project going down on Main Street; but, hell, we ran him out of town fast enough.

Must be those Persian types, those Iranians who are always so polite at Planning Commission meetings, who keep on investing their savings in building condos even when we make 'em suffer through two years or so of approvals and hearings. They've sometimes torn down apartments. But damn, if it weren't for them, families who can't afford houses here might never be able to buy a dwelling in Santa Monica.

I guess it's thinking about my immigrant grandmother investing her life savings in a little apartment building in Fairfax 60 years ago that makes me a little touchy when I hear words like "money-meisters from around the globe" being tossed around to rally those living in "truly affordable apartments" -- all of which were built by people trying to make a buck.

You know, I'm not against rent control, but living in a rent-controlled apartment is not in itself a sign of virtue.

But what bothers me most about this casual demagoguery is how leftwing rhetoric is used as cover for no growth politics that have nothing to do with anyone's "struggle."

Sure, SMRR is concerned that apartments will be destroyed to build condos. I can understand that, and it's an important issue that has to be looked at carefully in the LUCE update. But the few hundred condo units that developers have lately built in Santa Monica (out of 49,000 total dwelling units) have rarely been the issue that motivates no-growth hysteria.

No, no-growthers and NIMBYs of various sorts, to whom Councilmember McKeown and SMRR pander whether or not they agree with them in all cases, more often target such "money-meisters from around the globe" as Santa Monica College, affordable housing providers like Community Corp. or Upward Bound, developers like Craig Jones or Howard Jacobs who build housing in commercial districts, homeowners who want to build a second story addition, retailers like Target or Trader Joe's, job-generators like Lantana, hotels and restaurants, and, lest we forget everyone's favorite punching bag, the City itself.

Okay, what do I expect? I know. Relax. Councilmember McKeown is just a politician trying to rally the base. And he's not a bad guy; he's at every city event you can think of and he's more than affable. The whole thing is beneath him, and us. But maybe that's what troubles me -- how can someone so congenial with friends, be so intolerant in attacking those he considers his enemies?

I don't like it when Tom DeLay does it either.

There is nothing wrong with hard-hitting politics, but conjuring up bogeymen from "around the globe?" Bang us over the head with ideas, but, please, go easy on the fear.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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