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Frank Gruber

Working the Late Shift

By Frank J. Gruber

If you have any inclination to have sympathy for the City Council because last week it had to hear three-dozen members of the public speak and then deliberate past midnight over whether to make permanent an exemption from discretionary development review for certain affordable housing development, stifle that inclination.

The Council voted 5-2 (with Robert Holbrook and Bobby Shriver in the minority) to make permanent what had been a temporary exemption from discretionary review for affordable apartment buildings of up to 50 units in multi-family residential and certain other commercial districts.

It was the Council's own fault it was up so late and had no time to deliberate other important issues, or at least it was the fault of those members who were on the Council five or so years ago and who voted to lower the development review thresholds around the city and downtown to 7,500 square feet.

Based on a thin factual record but on a lot of angst from Santa Monicans Fearful of Change (SMFC's), the Council decided to substitute one theory of democracy for another -- to eliminate the relative certainty of the rule of law in favor of the small-d democracy of squeaky wheel government.

You see, for about two decades the City, through extensive public process culminating in numerous City Council votes, had rewritten Santa Monica's zoning code. For the most part, this was a down-zoning from earlier zoning that had been too lenient. Over a few iterations, standards evolved that make a lot of sense for Santa Monica.

But then what do you know -- the recession of the 90s ends and people actually start to build -- within the standards. No-growthers, who thought they had put an end to development with the down-zoning, go crazy.

Partly for reasons of state and federal law and partly because there is only so far the City Council will go substantively, the no-growthers couldn't get substantial changes to the new zoning (although they can nip at the edges continually with various design limitations and such), so they took a new tack: they would make nearly every development in the city subject to discretionary review.

Council Members Kevin McKeown and Ken Genser -- who don't mind staying up late and who like to get to vote on anything of significance that happens in the city -- led the charge to lower the threshold. Mr. McKeown said at the time that he was motivated to act because the Whole Foods on Wilshire, at just less than 30,000 square feet, qualified for administrative approval.

That Whole Foods is one of the most popular new businesses in Santa Monica. Do you think the 1999-2003 Planning Commission (think Kelly Olsen, Geraldine Moyle and Arlene Hopkins) would have approved it if it had been subject to the Commission's kind ministrations?

But then that's Santa Monica; some residents -- apparently the ones City Council Members bump into in coffee shops -- thunder against development and change, but then we sure love our Whole Foods and Urth Café, don't we?

Can you imagine any candidate in Santa Monica running on an anti-Whole Foods platform? But that's what lowering the development review threshold means, because as a practical matter, discretionary development review means that many people will not attempt to build in Santa Monica, because of the uncertainty and the cost of additional (and unnecessary) environmental review.

Remember how Trader Joe's gave up on the 12th & Wilshire site?

In any case, Council Members Genser and McKeown were able to convince the other two members of the anti-growth majority on the Council at the time -- Richard Bloom and then Council Member Michael Feinstein -- also to vote to lower the development review thresholds.

To give credit to Messrs. Bloom and Feinstein, they struggled with their decisions and, at least with respect to downtown Santa Monica, insisted on the Council's commitment to make changes in the future that would make the review process for developments downtown more transparent and predictable. No-growth elements managed to scuttle most of those changes a couple of years later, however, and some of the requested changes -- such as making environmental review easier -- have never come before the Council.

But to return to the main thread of this column, it turned out that Messrs. Genser, McKeown, Bloom and Feinstein had another constituency they had to deal with -- the builders of affordable housing and their supporters. They, it turned out, were the developers most vulnerable to the public review process -- not only because they built apartment buildings, but also because they did so for poor people and their funding was typically fragile and subject to deadlines.

What's more, as opposed to the no-growthers, who hadn't won an election in Santa Monica since defeating the Michael McCarty hotel on the beach (a cause that had appeal far beyond the no-growth community), the supporters of affordable housing were a real constituency -- the voters had shown their support for affordable housing not once, but twice -- with Prop. R in 1990 and Prop. I in 1998.

And, not insignificantly, the housers were an important constituency within Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. Although SMRR had been taken over by the anti-growth elements during the 90s when it came to nominating candidates for City Council, it hadn't lost all its progressive principles.

So the Council voted to exempt various affordable projects, including 100% affordable projects up to 50 units in multi-family districts, from discretionary review. Which meant that the developments were still subject to zoning restrictions and architectural review, but SMFC's could no longer use anger and hysteria about "massive overdevelopment" to prevent them from being built.
There was, however, plenty of anger and hysteria present at the meeting last week. It's always good when Messrs. Genser, McKeown and Bloom, those members of the Council who most often carry water for the no-growth contingent, have an opportunity to feel their wrath, and have the illogical arguments, ignorance of the facts, and general unpleasantness that characterizes much if not most anti- testimony directed at them.

On the other hand, it's always good for any cause to have Mr. Genser on its side.

I enjoyed the moment when Mr. Genser, usually a favorite of the SMFC's, used his Mr. Spock-like powers of logic to point out that contrary to the inflammatory rhetoric and flyers the anti's had spewed, granting the exemption from development review would not change the zoning to allow four-story 50-unit apartment buildings on residential streets.

It hurts, given his involvement with expanding discretionary review in the first place, but I have to give Council Member Kevin McKeown the "Profiles in Courage" award. That's because the SMFC group that most fervently worked for his recent reelection, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, sent its chair, Diana Gordon, to the meeting to oppose the exemption, which she did -- also fervently.

Mr. McKeown, however, himself made the motion to make the exemption permanent, which Council Member Herb Katz seconded.

Council Member Bobby Shriver gets the "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand award." It was a "tough one" for Mr. Shriver, who said he supported affordable housing but made a Poli Sci argument that the people needed to feel that they could take every issue directly to be judged by their elected representatives. Unless the people could threaten to withhold their votes from politicians, they could not expect relief.

While Mr. Shriver accurately described the in terrorem nature of the typical public hearing in Santa Monica, his argument did not give much encouragement to the majority of Santa Monicans who hope for reasoned judgment from those they elect.

It was also an odd argument from a council member who complains that the Council's meetings go on too long.

As often happens, it fell to Pam O'Connor, the council member who probably speaks the least on the dais, to make the most trenchant point, which was that the Council had to choose between standards that would apply to everyone or an ad hoc system where everything was discretionary and the Council would be meeting all the time.

Meanwhile, the Council will have to wait to a future meeting to discuss the homeless report, and, among other important issues, the review of the City's financial forecast and priorities for next year's budget and discussion of a temporary office building east of City Hall.

But then, those are merely the mandatory tasks of a City Council -- not the discretionary.

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