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Frank Gruber

Catch my RIFT

By Frank Gruber

There's a page [] on the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City's website promoting the Coalition's Measure T (née RIFT, the "Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic") called "What People Say" on which the Coalition excerpts various comments people have made in favor of the initiative that would cap most commercial development in Santa Monica at 75,000 square feet per year.

Reading the page I was surprised to find a quote from me on it -- surprised because I have written several columns opposing the measure. But there it was, a quote from my Feb. 19 column ("WHAT I SAY -- End Run with a_Blunt Instrument," February 19, 2008) where I took credit for pointing out early on in the land use and circulation element (LUCE) update process that a lot more office space (about 9 million square feet) was built in Santa Monica after the City adopted the 1984 land use element of the general plan than the plan had contemplated (about 4.5 million square feet).

The Coalition's website didn't mention that I went on in the column to write that RIFT would be the wrong way to address the fact that Santa Monica doesn't need more office buildings.

I don't want to spend too much time venting my personal annoyances (although why else write a column?), but this little misuse of my column to imply that I endorse RIFT reflects the overall cavalier attitude the supporters of RIFT have to what's called in national politics "reality." As in what the Bush Administration never had a strong grasp of. As in the opposite of belief based on nothing other than belief.

It's as if the RIFTers actually believe that their reactive and reactionary measure would do something about traffic in Santa Monica. Again I say this as someone who long before RIFT was a glimmer in Diana Gordon's eye wrote that the City should not for a long time authorize much more in the way of job growth. ("WHAT I SAY -- I Love LUCE," January 26, 2006).

But RIFT is based on two false premises: (i) that it would significantly reduce development, and (ii) that this reduction would reduce future traffic congestion.

Let me say that I haven't paid much attention to the anti-RIFT arguments based on the potential impact on the City's and the school district's revenues. Or whether RIFT would lead to a reduction in rent-controlled units. Or even if the hospitals are right that it could lead to a decline in our medical facilities.

To me, those factors are hard to predict and ultimately irrelevant. The opponents of RIFT may have grounds to raise fears about these impacts, but my guess is that if RIFT passed, the City would muddle through.

My problems with RIFT are with RIFT itself.

RIFT is mindless ballot box government -- the kind that has turned "muddling through" into the gold standard for government in California.

There's no question Santa Monica's seen enough new office space built in the past 20 years regardless of any traffic impacts, but at most RIFT's impact on the amount of development in Santa Monica would be trivial.

As even RIFT supporters admit, the City has drastically reduced the rate of development since the early '90s (to credible figures I've seen ranging from 81,000 to 160,000 square feet per year). It's hard to predict the future, especially with the economy in its current state, but the City's consultants predict that up to 200,000 square feet could be built a year under the draft LUCE standards.

It's hard to figure exactly what RIFT's impact would be on these annual figures, since RIFT has exemptions for certain kinds of commercial development, such as for administratively approvable (i.e., non-discretionary) projects, and it's hard to predict how developers would respond to them.

For the purpose of this column, however, I'll use the figures I heard RIFT co-drafter and City Council candidate Ted Winterer use at a candidate forum Friday night; he said that RIFT would reduce annual commercial growth in Santa Monica by 25 percent from the rate of recent years or by 40 percent from what might be built under current LUCE projections.

While 25 to 40 percent might sound like a substantial decline, the actual number of square feet this represents -- up to 80,000 square feet per year if 200,000 would otherwise be built under LUCE -- is less than a drop in the bucket, the bucket being the approximately 23 million square feet of commercial development Santa Monica already has (not including nearly 6 million square feet of medical and industrial buildings). (These figures are from the 2005 Opportunities and Challenges report the City prepared for LUCE.)

If RIFT prevented the maximum projection of 80,000 square feet from being built for its duration of 15 years, that would be 1.2 million square feet -- a number less than five percent of Santa Monica's total commercial development at that time.

That reduction in the amount of development in Santa Monica would not be noticeable. RIFT would do even less about traffic.

Since the '20s, people have complained about traffic in the L.A. region, and Santa Monica, with its beaches and regional downtown, always attracted a lot. Back in the '50s the police chief wanted to make the downtown streets all one way because of the traffic congestion. That was before the "massive overdevelopment" the RIFTers complain about -- unless you consider the Douglas plant to have been overdevelopment.

But in recent years traffic congestion has become much worse during the afternoon exodus of commuters, going both east and south. That's a problem that the City, as recognized by the LUCE process, should focus on, but it's important to realize that the worst traffic congestion in Santa Monica developed long after most of the development in the city occurred.

The big office developments in Santa Monica, culminating in the Water Garden, were all approved before 1988. They were all built by the early '90s -- since then, as mentioned above, the rate of development in the city has not been much more than the RIFT limit (especially considering the exemptions in RIFT).

It is true that almost immediately these office developments had an impact on north-south traffic through Sunset Park. Reaction to this traffic led to the emergence of Richard Bloom and Friends of Sunset Park as forces in Santa Monica politics.

I don't mean to be dismissive of the congestion on 23rd Street, but the horrendous east-west traffic that imprisons the rest of us every afternoon, the traffic that prompted Zev Yaroslavsky to propose making Pico and Olympic one-way, didn't develop until around five years ago, long after the big Santa Monica developments were built.

This local congestion is the result of congestion all along the 405 corridor; we all know that because when you're trying to go east late in the afternoon, to Hollywood, say, the traffic clears once you reach Sepulveda.

It's hard for people to understand, but bad traffic does not result directly from more development; if you have driven in the Valley, or in Orange County, you know that the traffic there is just as bad as the traffic here yet the development there is much less dense.

The way to deal with traffic is to deal with traffic itself, with transit and with pricing mechanisms; in this connection, the newly published RAND study, "Moving Los Angeles," is the kind of thinking we need ("Easing Traffic Will Cost Motorists," October 3, 2008).

There is also a role for sophisticated land use planning that puts housing close to jobs and connected by multiple modes of transportation. While this can be done through LUCE, RIFT is a blunt instrument.

And that's my fundamental problem with RIFT. The bluntness of it. Its dullness. Its unpredictability. It is ballot box government at its worst, an insult to anyone who believes in government. It's more than ironic that the County Democratic Committee endorsed it: RIFT is philosophically so Republican.

What kills me is to see City Council Member Kevin McKeown supporting RIFT. Why go to all the trouble to be elected to the council if you don't think that you and your colleagues have enough smarts to make decisions about development? Or are we to assume that all the other council members are so venal and/or stupid that we have to be protected from them?

The same goes for any planning commissioners or former planning commissioners who support RIFT. Are you telling us that we shouldn't trust you to make decisions about the future of the city?

It's bizarre -- here we are living in Santa Monica, one of the best-governed cities in the world, with one of the most active and intelligent electorates, where public process is a religion, where graft is unheard of, and the RIFT supporters are going around talking about government as if City Hall is Tammany Hall.

The problems with RIFT are simple.

I have often referred to Kevin McKeown's glib summary of the arguments against bringing a Target store to downtown as the epitome of simplistic thinking about urbanism.

Mr. McKeown said, "It's the traffic, stupid."

I'll summarize the fundamental argument against RIFT as this:

It's the stupidity, stupid.

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