The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Bay City Mystery: Who Stuck the Knife in LUCE?

By Frank Gruber

I don't know if City Council Member Pam O'Connor is prescient enough now that she is Chair of the MTA Board to tell us where the money will come from for the Subway to the Sea, but she sure showed predictive powers back in 2004 when Santa Monica began the process to update the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of its general plan.

At the Oct. 26, 2004 joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission that kicked off what was supposed to be a two-year process, Ms. O'Connor said that it would be crucial to complete the job in that timeframe. (see story) Why crucial? Because delay, she said, would allow a vocal minority of residents to thwart the development of an inclusive plan for Santa Monica's future.

As Ms. O'Connor stated it, "'We need more time' is a code phrase for people to use to hijack the process."

I have ruefully recalled those words often as the LUCE process has dragged on, most recently when I read the story last week about how various SMFCs (Santa Monicans Fearful of Change), including the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) and other self-appointed neighborhood groups, are now complaining that development is proceeding in Santa Monica before the LUCE process has been completed.

The SMFCs want a citywide building moratorium until the update is finished -- except that if the past is a guide, they will do their best to make sure the update remains in limbo forever.

The update is unfinished, almost a year after Ms. O'Connor and her colleagues voted to have it completed, not because of the machinations of developers, as the SMFCs would have you believe, but because the same SMFC's who are complaining now about lack of progress on LUCE persuaded the City Council to put the brakes on LUCE more than a year and a half ago.

At the January 24, 2006 City Council meeting the City's planning staff asked the council to give guidance for the next steps in the process. At that time the process was essentially on schedule. Staff and consultants had released two important reports -- on "Emerging Themes" and "Opportunities and Challenges" based on extensive public outreach and analysis.

The meeting was well attended. According to the minutes, 39 residents appeared to speak. That's a lot. Enthusiasm was high, and most of the speakers made constructive suggestions and encouraged the council to keep the process going.

But a small cadre of SMFCs and other no-growthers of various levels of intensity, including Jacob Samuel, Geraldine Kennedy, Darrell Clarke, Ted Winterer, Arthur Harris, Ellen Brennan, Zina Josephs, Lorraine Sanchez, and Emmalie Hodgin -- SMFCs you regularly see at public meetings -- persuaded a majority of four council members (Ken Genser, Robert Holbrook, Herb Katz and Kevin McKeown) that they should not continue with the LUCE process until they had pre-judged how much growth the plan should plan for. (see story) (Ms. O'Connor and Richard Bloom voted against stopping the process, and Bobby Shriver was absent.)

The LUCE process ground to a halt -- hijacked by habitual complainers. It was not to be resuscitated in any meaningful way until the City hired a new Planning Director, Eileen Fogarty, who has restarted the process using a new program of engaging residents.

Contrary to the SMFCs who told The Lookout last week that LUCE is a lost cause, the Planning Department only last month hosted one of its best-attended events, the workshop on industrial lands, which was, by all accounts, a huge success. (see story)

Ms. Fogarty has announced that the department will present a draft plan by June 2008 -- the process may stagger to a conclusion two years late.

Just as Council Member O'Connor predicted, a minority of residents used delay to thwart an inclusive process that had reached beyond the usual disgruntled suspects, who have the time to testify at meeting after meeting, to gather the opinions of a wide sample of Santa Monicans. The SMFCs didn't and don't like the public's support for sensible growth, support that was and is readily apparent from both large public meetings and survey data. They are determined to thwart the general plan update.

Now, complaining that the City is responsible for the delays, or for hiding data about traffic or population, the SMFCs are trying to create a presumption that the "residents" want a moratorium. They have no evidence for this other than their own hysteria.

Take the latest fishing expedition by the SMCLC. The so-called Coalition has filed vague document requests for population data that the City is supposedly hiding. This was a tactic the Coalition used in 2006 to fish for staff emails that the Coalition assured everyone would show corruption in connection with the renovation of Santa Monica Place.

The Coalition sued and got the documents, none of which they've ever shown to the public as evidence of any corruption. But the Coalition got the City to pay its lawyer, and that's likely what will happen here. The Coalition will sue, there will be a settlement, and the Coalition's lawyer will get a taxpayer-funded payday.

The whole population data request -- and the idea that staff is hiding something -- is a red herring in any case. Planning staff published an extensive analysis of various population projections for the city in 2005 as part of the Opportunities and Challenges Report (beginning on page 4-1) , and there's even a link to a page of demographic data on the City's homepage. The idea that there have been radical changes in two years because of a few hundred new housing units (out of a total of near 50,000) is silly.

Anyone with knowledge of past Planning Department practice knows that the problems with the department's past attempts at projecting population -- along with those of the California Dept. of Finance and the Southern California Association of Governments -- have not involved underestimating population growth, but the opposite. The department has consistently overestimated Santa Monica's population, only to be brought back to reality when the Census comes along and shows that for yet another decade, Santa Monica's population has held steady or declined.

In the 90s, for example, the City posted signs at the entrances to Santa Monica said that the population was 92,000, but then the 2000 Census counted only 84,084 and the signs are gone.

In my opinion, the demographers, in trying to calculate net migration to and from Santa Monica, consistently underestimate the number of high school seniors who graduate and leave Santa Monica, rarely to return and seldom to be replaced by new toddlers. Few children of Santa Monicans can afford to return and live here as young adults, and few young families can afford to live here either. That's why our schools face a demographic/financial crisis.

In any case, what really bugs the SMFCs is traffic, but Santa Monica's traffic problems are not a function of its resident population. The traffic that keeps us locked in our little burg until 7:30 every weekday night is not caused by the people who live in Santa Monica, but by the people who don't.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

Lookout Logo footer image Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.      EMAIL