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Since I've Been Gone

By Frank Gruber

June 22, 2009 --  I was out of town last week at the New Urbanism congress in Denver, and I missed some local news.

One piece of news was like an old chestnut -- the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) expressed its opposition to the City's entering into a development agreement with the Trammel Crow Company to redevelop the property at 301 Ocean Avenue. ("Coalition Opposes Condo Development," June 9, 2009)

What strummed the familiar chords wasn't so much the group's opposition to the prospect of a new and bigger building on the site -- a development that will certainly require scrutiny from both the public and public officials -- but the SMCLC's immediate declaration that by opposing the development it reflects a "groundswell" of public opinion against it.

It's reassuring that only eight months after the SMCLC's "Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic" (Meas. T) was trounced at the polls -- an initiative the group assured us was universally popular -- the SMCLC has the confidence again to speak for all Santa Monicans.  It would be disappointing if the group broke with tradition and modestly contributed its ideas to a constructive and respectful dialogue about Santa Monica's future.

* * *

The bigger story while I was away was the City Council's setting priorities for the balance of earthquake redevelopment money -- predicted to be about $77 million -- of the total estimated amount of $283 million that remained unallocated after the council's May 12 meeting.

It turned out that I was wrong when I wrote after the May 12 meeting that the supporters of recreation and other projects at Santa Monica High School were on track to get at least enough financial support from the City to move forward.  ("WHAT I SAY -- A Quality Start," May 18, 2009 ) The council did not allocate any more funding to the Samohi projects, and those projects are now in limbo.

If the high school projects are in limbo, then planning for the new park on the Civic Auditorium parking lot is also in limbo, because the high school plans would have enabled the building of a new soccer field on the campus rather in the park.  A dispute over the field is likely to disrupt planning for the park.

If the park is in limbo, then you have to wonder if the Civic Auditorium projects are in limbo.  And if they are in limbo, you have to go back to the big question I was asking back in April: can the City get it together to design and bid many of its projects in time to bond them, or will it lose the opportunity to use much of the redevelopment money? ("WHAT I SAY -- Shovel and Bond Ready," April 21, 2009)

Perhaps worrying that there might not be projects to issue bonds for, the City Council two weeks ago took a conservative and frankly unimaginative approach to the remaining $77 million.  The council allocated $27 million for land acquisition in downtown, ostensibly for parking, and $43.6 million for affordable housing, and about $6 million for miscellaneous projects.

I might normally rail against the $27 million for parking, and I reserve the right to do so in the future, but Mayor Ken Genser, the chief proponent of this allocation, has made it clear that he expects that any downtown property the City acquires will likely be used to facilitate a joint public private development that would combine public underground parking with private developments and public amenities. 

The development would not necessarily involve building (much) new parking.  It might replace the parking in one of the old structures on Fourth Street.  In turn the Fourth Street site could be developed -- the City has solicited proposals to build movie theaters there -- which might return to the City the money it would spend now on property.

Get it?  It could happen, maybe, but in any case I am going to withhold any more discussion about parking until the City releases a major study of parking "needs" downtown and in the Civic Center.  That's expected soon. 

The downtown parking plan that the council passed in 2006 requires that parking needs be evaluated every two years to make sure unnecessary parking is not built -- like the expensive and underutilized underground lot at the Main Library.  Since then there's been little construction downtown to justify more publicly-financed parking, but let's see what the study says.

As for the $43.6 million for affordable housing, I usually favor spending money on housing, but I don't understand this allocation.  Under redevelopment law, 20 percent of redevelopment automatically goes to affordable housing, so it's not like housing was being shortchanged.  City staff asked for an additional allocation of only $10 million.

Although the current depressed real estate market may be a good time for the City to acquire land for future housing development, it's also unclear what the needs are going to be in Southern California for affordable housing in the context of so many foreclosed houses being available to rent or buy.

What's also problematic about the additional allocation of redevelopment money is that it's not likely to be used for construction of new housing.  Based on the staff report and what Council member Kevin McKeown, who pushed for the allocation, said at the meeting, the City will likely use the money, or a lot of it, to buy existing units, rehab them, and then turn them into affordable apartments. 

While rehabbing units is a good strategy when dealing with blighted housing, that's not the situation in Santa Monica, where we need a general increase in the number of units to deal with the housing needs of all economic groups (other than the rich).  It doesn't help solve our workforce housing deficit, for instance, to take middle-income units off the market and convert them into low-income units. 

Most families in public housing hope some day not to qualify for it, and it would be great if they (or their children) didn't have to leave Santa Monica to move up the ladder.

Council member McKeown led the move to allocate more money for affordable housing.  The money might have gone to the Samohi projects.  Mr. McKeown cannot vote on any schools-related issues because he works for the School District -- in effect, his vote is always a "no" when it comes to school funding.  At the council meeting his presence on the dais prevented even the discussion of the Samohi projects as an alternative to housing and the other allocations.

Mr. McKeown is a conscientious member of the Council, and the fact that he has to recuse himself on school issues clearly bothers him.  But now that the council is so often voting on issues that affect the schools, I suspect that schools boosters are going to start looking hard at whether they can continue to afford an automatic no vote there.

In addition to the Samohi projects, there were a number of other worthy projects on the list the staff gave the council -- practical projects from tree planting to street improvements to extension of the beach bike path.  None of these were included in the allocations, because the council members couldn't agree on them.  The easiest thing to do was to allocate the bulk of the money to buy real estate -- for parking or for housing.

The earthquake was 15 years ago.  That should have been enough time to come up with projects that are more exciting that simply banking land.


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