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Frank Gruber

Unintended Consequences

By Frank Gruber

A friend of mine -- I'll call him Bill -- emailed me after reading last week's column in which I complained about Santa Monicans Fearful of Change (SMFCs). He told me that I was very persuasive -- except that I persuaded him to send a donation to the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).

Not the result I wanted, but then Bill comforted me by telling me that I had achieved something in common with planners -- an unintended consequence.

Bill describes himself as a "free-market capitalist." His usual view is that the City regulates property owners too much. He had a terrible experience running up against City regulations a few years ago when he tried to add an addition to his house. So what's eating Bill? I'll quote from his email:

"I appreciate the enthusiasm for the LUCE planning process. But this is where the (lack of, in Bill's view) transparency and legitimacy come in. I simply have no confidence that, if they (the City) wanted to drill an oil well in my back yard, I would know about it before the trucks arrived. Nor have I any confidence that the City Council and the planners would think twice about sacrificing my local neighborhood's interests if they identified a benefit for the larger community.

"In light of my view that this process lacks transparency and perhaps legitimacy as well -- and because I do not want to invest the days and weeks of time necessary for careful study and effective advocacy -- I have concluded that my best alternative is to fuel the people who would simply bring the entire process to its knees, who would oppose, unconditionally and in the most unreasonable and asinine manner possible, any development. In other words, the thing you complained about in your column -- that the SMCLC and their ilk are simply unreasonable -- is what I like best about them: for my neighborhood, "squeaky wheelism" seems to be an efficient and effective strategy."

Bill's neighborhood, by the way, is near the "industrial lands" north of the freeway, which are those areas of the city that look most likely to experience convulsive redevelopment. Indeed, what has Bill concerned are the recent proposals for large apartment complexes enabled by recent housing legislation the City Council enacted (see story), but which the City Council last week made subject to discretionary review by means of development agreements. (see story)

When Bill's view -- that he can't trust government because when given the chance officials will make the wrong decision (and not let him know about it) -- is juxtaposed with the views of anti-developer no-growth outfits like the SMCLC they show just what a rock and hard place government is up against.

The rock is the conservative attitude that government generally makes things worse in a misguided attempt to make things better. The hard place is the very people -- they typically call themselves liberal -- who pressure government to get what they want, by calling what they want the same thing as the public good.

I see Santa Monica government and politics differently than how my friend Bill does, although we agree about the unintended consequences. My impression is that nearly every attempt by the City at social engineering becomes so mangled by the collision with residents out to protect what they've got, that unintended consequences are only too predictable.

For instance, the City's attempts to protect affordable rental housing in existing neighborhoods have had the consequence that developers build ever larger and more luxurious condominiums.

It is possible to plan in a manner that limits unintended consequences. The key is not to reinvent the wheel. It is possible to learn from the past.

Ah, the past. Another argument I've heard against my criticism of SMFCs is that it is rational to fear change when change has been up to no good.

I can understand the appeal of this argument. One can argue that the past wasn't so great, but that's not the point. There's nostalgia to factor in. The "grass is always greener" aphorism also has a temporal dimension -- the grass was always greener back then, too.

That's because the past is always certain, and the future is always uncertain.

One way people try to avoid uncertainty is to try to perpetuate the past, but the problem with this philosophy -- the "throw a spanner into the works" philosophy that Bill likes about the SMCLC -- is that the past is going to be the past no matter what. It's not going to be the future. Change happens.

You can't look at Drescherville in the industrial lands, or the mobile home park on Colorado that is slated for redevelopment, and say with any confidence that what you see is permanent.

Perpetuating the past is not the same thing as learning from it.

If you fear change, and you try to block it, you're going to get the worst of it, because "change without change" is likely to perpetuate the trends that you didn't like. Take the industrial areas of Santa Monica. Historically zoned for jobs, over time they will, without change in the City's general plan, be redeveloped, like it or not, for more intense concentrations of jobs. This has happened with much of the City's former industrial lands already.

An office building or a post-production facility has more jobs per square foot than a factory. Factories, like Papermate, are history in Santa Monica. The explosion of jobs on formerly industrial properties is what has created the traffic problems in Santa Monica that annoy us all.

There's now a proposal in the works to turn Papermate into more post-production facilities. It would be much better for Santa Monica if housing were built instead, with appropriate infrastructure. But that can't happen without change to the land use element of the general plan.

If you don't fear change, you can manage it. You can build residential neighborhoods with a grid of slow-moving streets, with businesses and restaurants that people can walk to -- including people in neighborhoods like Bill's that have historically been cut off from the rest of the city.

If you fear change you won't know what hit you. If you're looking backwards, all consequences will appear unintended.

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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
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