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The Most Beneficial Benefit

By Frank Gruber

That the long process to update the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of Santa Monica's general plan is nearing its end became evident last week, what with all the hubbub at the workshop the planning department held Tuesday night to collect feedback on what people want in the way of "public benefits" from future development. ("Setting Benefits for Development," July 8, 2009)

Of course some Santa Monicans don't want any future development.  One of the more illuminating moments of the illuminating evening came for me in a conversation I had with Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson after the meeting was over.

In this remarks at the conclusion of the workshop Mr. Johnson had said that he had heard people talk, in the small group that he participated in, about "no-growth" and "slow-growth," and that he thought that it would be worth analyzing what the two terms meant.

Throughout his nearly nine-year tenure on the commission, Mr. Johnson has been a staunch skeptic of development (viz, it seems like he invented the word "canyonization"). 

Yet when I asked him after the workshop what he meant by his comment, and what he thought the terms meant, I was surprised when he told me that he couldn't understand how people could say they were for "no growth" and literally mean it.  And indeed, he said, they mean it: they don't want any more development. 

Mr. Johnson was perplexed -- you need some growth, he said -- slow, yes, and that's a term that begs defining, but you have to expect that people will build something.

I'll now add Mr. Johnson to the list of growth-skeptic public figures in Santa Monica who can't understand the extreme element among their constituents.

And I suspect there will be more, because the no-growthers -- I'll now use the word advisedly -- are becoming desperate.  They cannot understand how -- or rather they blame a conspiracy of money and politics for how -- their beloved RIFT (Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic) lost so decisively last November.  Now the feared LUCE is approaching passage, with all its fancy talk about the pleasures of urban community.

Yes, there are dangers associated with growing too fast, but cities that don't grow at all inevitably decline -- a process the end days of which is now observable throughout the formerly industrial Midwest.

It's been a long and winding road since the LUCE process began in 2004, and what's been clear throughout is that most Santa Monicans favor moderate growth.  Yet the rumblings on the right -- and yes, I view no-growthism as a strain of conservative politics (compare the anti-government rhetoric of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City with that of, say, Sarah Palin) -- have set the agenda by terrorizing anyone in City government -- elected officials, appointed officials and staff -- who would seek to quantify or give form to what moderate growth would mean.

Planning Director Eileen Fogarty and the crew of outside consultants she brought in when she arrived three years ago deserve credit for rescuing a then-foundering process, but I have to say that as the LUCE ship makes its way slowly into port, I'm almost as frustrated as the no-growthers.

Let's be clear: what LUCE would look like was clear from the beginning.  After growth in the city of office space so vastly exceeded in the late '80s the predictions of the 1984 land use element, it was clear that in the new plan the City would have to emphasize housing and forego more big job-producers.  It was equally clear that Santa Monica's neighborhoods did not need any changes to their development standards, and that new development would be channeled downtown, to our shoddy boulevards, and to old industrial areas.

That this is the form the plan has taken was inevitable, and for the good.  What was just as inevitable, and not for the good, is how the process became convoluted in response to Santa Monica's squeaky wheel politics.

A general plan should be a relatively simple document, because, as Planning Commissioner Hank Koning pointed out at the meeting last week, the zoning law that comes later should provide the details.  The land use element should set general and flexible parameters for what the city should look like, allowing for leeway to take into account what of the future we can't predict.

But because our officials are so afraid of telling Santa Monicans that there will be change and growth in the future in their city just as there has always been in the past, the plan has become encrusted with a baroque process whereby future development will be dependent on how developers can accommodate themselves to some menu of public benefits. 

This resulted in last week's workshop, which sounded at times like a recitation of letters to Santa Claus.  Or a gripe session.

I understand that there are legal reasons to tie public benefits to requests from developers for more development rights, rather than simply requiring them (a "nexus" is required for the latter), but on the issue of public benefits, I'm with Mayor Ken Genser, who has said that we should tell developers what kind of development we need or want, and how much of it, and leave it at that.  (I reserve my right to disagree with Mayor Genser about how much development to allow, but I like his approach.)

And what we need and should want is housing.  Housing of all kinds.  It's the most beneficial benefit of all.

We need subsidized affordable housing for the service workers who in our economy do not make enough in wages to afford market rate housing.  (By local law, 30 percent of all the housing built in Santa Monica must be deed-restricted affordable in any case; we should give priority to private developers who partner with agencies that specialize in building affordable housing.)

We need housing for the middle-class, but we have to understand that in Santa Monica that's going to take the form of rental apartments or, at the high end of the middle class, condominiums, not houses. 

We even need high-end condominiums -- to entice empty-nester homeowners to sell their houses to the next generation with kids.

Why is housing such a benefit?  For me, I simply like people, and Santa Monica is by no means overpopulated.  More people make life more interesting.  But even if you're like that woman I heard at Tuesday's workshop who said she had never heard anyone say that Santa Monica needed another 10,000 people, there are reasons to build more housing.

It's well understood that housing stimulates less traffic than commercial development, but if we build more housing in Santa Monica, then all things being equal, there is going to be an incentive for people with jobs here to live in it, reducing the commuter traffic that annoys us so much. 

The new residents will also contribute to the economy of Santa Monica without driving into the city.  And they'll have children who will keep our schools in business for another generation.

Another reason for building more housing, if you want to think globally about it, is that if people don't live in relatively dense places like Santa Monica, they will live out in the sprawl, where their impacts on the environment are much greater.

LUCE should be simple: focus new development downtown, on the boulevards and in the industrial areas, agree on reasonable and flexible height and square footage envelopes, incentivize housing, limit commercial development to retail and hotels, and prohibit new offices except small offices for neighborhood businesses.

And that should about do it.

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