By Frank Gruber
I was wrong about last week's City Council meeting -- it was not the "most important meeting for decades about public investment in our city." I wrote that it could be that because the council was considering what capital projects should be funded from the earthquake redevelopment project, and I expected the council members would at least tip their collective hand as to what their thinking was going to be.
But the capital plan was only one item on a crowded agenda, and by the time the council got to it, near 10 p.m., it was too late to do more than listen to the staff report and from those members of the public who chose to stay and speak. The council postponed to a future date all of its own deliberations.
However, I did learn something from the staff presentation made by Andy Agle, the City's director of Housing and Economic Development, and what I learned makes me wonder about the viability of much of the enterprise.
As discussed in last week's column, the City's redevelopment agency must issue its bonds by 2014, 20 years after the earthquake. Then the agency can tap into the flow of tax increment money until 2042 to pay off the bonds. That seems to give the City five years to develop its plans and issue its bonds.
What Mr. Agle revealed, however, is another deadline. If the agency doesn't issue the bonds by 2012, it cannot issue standard bonds that allow for amortization over 30 years. This would reduce the agency's borrowing power by increasing the annual payments required to pay off the same amount of principal.
What was a five-year deadline is now a three-year deadline.
What's more, Mr. Agle said that to issue the bonds, the City would need to have projects ready to build, and he went on to say that according to the public works department, it would typically take 21 months to design and bid (including public outreach and board and commission and City Council meetings) a "medium-sized" project, and 28 months to do so for "larger and more complex" projects.
Mr. Agle then made a statement that makes me wonder if he has repressed memories of the years he spent in the planning department. He said that given the 2012 deadline for the 30-year bonds, the projects should be ready to bond by 2011; he then said -- and my jaw dropped -- that starting these planning processes in the coming fiscal year "positions us well to take advantage of the ideal bonding window."
Has any City project ever been planned, designed and bid in 21 months? Or, for that matter, 28 months? Public works may have a theoretical chart that says that can happen, have they factored in the famous Santa Monica "process."
It's especially hard to imagine approval happening this fast for projects that to date have not had one public workshop. Judging by past experience, when it comes to parks and such (Virginia Avenue Park and what will next week open to the public as the Annenberg Community Beach Club come to mind), it takes Santa Monicans up to ten years just to decide what facilities they want parks to have.
The City might be able to follow a 28-month schedule for one or two big projects, but almost two dozen capital projects were listed in the staff report for the meeting, and many of these are in the larger and more complex category.
There are 32 months to the end of 2011.
Could the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Architectural Review Board, the Planning Commission and the City Council even handle the hearings for a quarter of the proposed projects in, say, the last six months of that time frame?
This makes me skeptical that the City will be able to use the redevelopment funds to the extent staff would like. Paradoxically, this may turn out to be an advantage to those residents pushing for the City to use more of the redevelopment money for joint-use projects at Santa Monica High School, which appear to be much closer to being "shovel (and bond) ready."
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Another item on the City Council's agenda last week was the latest residents survey.
("Most Santa Monicans Satisfied, Survey Finds," April 14, 2009
) As was pointed out by the council members in their discussion, the results in these surveys depend a lot on how the questions are phrased.
For instance, when the surveyors ask an open-ended question such as "identify up to two pressing issues in Santa Monica," they get different results from when they ask a resident to rate the importance of specific issues. The following table shows the difference between the percent of respondents who, unprompted, identify certain specific issues as pressing (given two chances) and how many identify an issue as serious when asked about the issue specifically:
% who identify as pressing
in open-ended question
% who identify it as serious
Too many homeless
Lack affordable housing
These differences are dramatic, but when I reflect on the results, they seem consistent with the impressions I pick up from day-to-day interactions with Santa Monicans.
Meaning that not that many issues, except for the most obvious of them, like being stuck in traffic or seeing a homeless person lying in the gutter, float on the consciousness of the typical Santa Monican, but when asked, well, sure we all know that it's hard to find a place to live here, or for that matter, a parking place, and that young men in gangs kill each other here.
What I would like to see in future surveys is an attempt to find out why people like living in Santa Monica. The City's surveys have an earnest quality of "tell me what's wrong," but for a place where the motto -- "fortunate people in a fortunate city" -- happens to be accurate, it might be helpful to ask people "what's right," and then expand on that.