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Thought Association

By Frank Gruber

June 29, 2009 --  A week ago Saturday I attended the annual meeting of the Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition, and it was like a refresher course in Poli Sci.

The meeting was straight out of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America:  he wrote about how Americans used "association" for both civil and political purposes better than anyone else, and "applied [association] to more varied aims . . . than anywhere else in the world."

Americans are joiners.

I was at the Wilmont meeting because I was on a panel called to discuss the plans the City was developing for Wilshire Boulevard, particularly plans for the corner of 14th and Wilshire, as part of the updates to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan.

The other members of the panel were City Council member Kevin McKeown, new Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer, and Eileen Fogarty, the City's director of planning.  Ms. Fogarty began things by describing the plan and what was being considered -- an "activity center" with more concentrated development -- for the 14th and Wilshire area.  Then there was a discussion among the panel members (moderated by Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson) and questions from the audience.

The discussion and the questions from the audience were at a high level, and I was pleased and honored to participate.

What was interesting, to my mind at least, was how small the differences were among us panelists.  Even though Messrs. McKeown and Winterer had been in favor of last year's "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" (RIFT) and I had opposed it, we all agreed that change was likely to come to 14th and Wilshire (indeed that the two big stores on the northwest corner and their parking lots were due for change), and that the nearby residents should focus on what they wanted -- what "public benefits," to use the language of the LUCE plan -- from the redevelopment.

Sure, there was the potential for a traditional Santa Monica fight over "one story" inasmuch as my theoretical maximum height for such a location is six stories and Council Member McKeown voted last year for the City to study for environmental purposes building up only to five.  But we panelists didn't get into that.  We all agreed that the development should be planned in manner that reduced the creation of more car traffic.

Now I knew that I was on the panel because, commendably, the Wilmont leadership had wanted to balance a panel that (counting Mr. Johnson) had three people on it who had supported RIFT, but I was surprised to find out later from one of the Wilmont organizers that I was considered part of the half of the panel that was "strongly pro-development."  (I thought this was particularly unfair to Ms. Fogarty who, after all, was at the meeting simply to present the plan that had been developed through the City's process -- a plan that except for various "one-story" issues had been supported on the City Council by RIFT-supporters McKeown and Bobby Shriver.)

But that's the politics of growth.  Advocates of no-growth try to portray development issues in black or white terms.  If you countenance any change in Santa Monica, and then try to plan for it, they label you as favoring "massive over-development" (not to mention, if you're a politician, as being in the pocket of rich developers).

This was evident in the resolution about 14th and Wilshire that the Wilmont members passed by a margin of 3-1.  Unfortunately I hadn't focused on the language of the resolution before the panel discussion began, or I would have pointed out how misleading it was, but here it is:

"The update to the City Charter (LUCE) is proposing a large, 6-story development in our neighborhood.  It will span the entire block from Euclid to 14th Street, replacing the existing buildings and parking lots on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard.  Should Wilmont support or oppose this development?"

This language is false.  The City has not proposed a "6-story development" that would "span the entire block from Euclid to 14th Street."  It's true that the City is studying the possibility of a maximum height of six stories at the location, but that's in the context of an overall floor-to-area ratio (FAR), if the developer provides public benefits, of 2.5.  That means that if the development qualifies, the average height of buildings on the whole site would be two-and-one-half stories.

For the record, I would vote to oppose covering the location entirely with a six-story building, too.

What if the resolution had been worded, more accurately, like this:

"The City is proposing lowering the height limit contained in the current general plan on Wilshire from 84 to 65 feet, and allowing on the northwest corner development that would replace the large and ugly grocery store and drugstore currently there with a development that mixes mixed-income residential with retail (with also the possibility of small offices).  The development would average two and one half stories in height, but it would use higher buildings, up to five or six stories (the height limit is currently undetermined), to allow for plazas and walkways open to the public and available for outdoor dining and similar uses.  Should Wilmont support or oppose this development?"

I suspect the vote would have been different.  More to the point, why have votes like this at all?  There were only about 40 residents at the meeting, and to my eye they hardly reflected a broad sample of who lives in the neighborhood.  The vote will be promoted as reflecting the sense of the community, but there's no evidence that it was.

Community organizations are important in harnessing opinion, but on complex issues like this, wouldn't it make more sense for an organization to use its power of collective action to survey their members about what they want for the future, and advocate for that, rather than have them vote on simplistic and misleading resolutions about what they don't want?

Here's some unsolicited advice to the no-growthers of Santa Monica: you're hurting yourselves with these tactics.  Consider how you have alienated politicians in Santa Monica.  Richard Bloom and Ken Genser were once your stalwarts and are still in real world terms cautious about growth, but they both opposed RIFT and generally support LUCE.

Consider how you lost so badly with RIFT.

My advice: stop throwing rhetorical bombs from outside the perimeter and join the discussion.

As if on cue, the City is hosting its next LUCE workshop next week -- on Tuesday, July 7, from 6:30-9:30 PM at the Civic Auditorium, East Wing (1855 Main Street, Santa Monica 90401).  For more information go to:

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