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 Big Plans

By Frank Gruber

"Make no little plans."-- advice attributed to Daniel Burnham, American architect and city planner.

December 21, 2009. Last Tuesday at a public meeting in Virginia Avenue Park, Hines, the developer of the Lantana post-production facilities on Olympic Boulevard, announced its plans to redevelop the nearby site of the old Papermate factory. (See Developer Promises Sustainable Community with Large Project.) The now empty plant, which opened in 1957, is directly across Olympic from Bergamot Station, a future stop on the Expo line light rail.

The location is an important one, and as local land use consultant Howard Robinson remarked at the meeting, it will take something big to open up the current monolithic, seven-acre super-block and change it from being a barrier to a connection between the station and the districts to the north.

Hines' initial plans are big.

Although the plans are something like an initial offer, Hines developed them with an eye to the development standards in the draft update to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan. The draft LUCE calls for a 3.5 "floor-to-area ratio" (FAR) for the site, meaning the development of square footage of buildings of up to three and a half times the area of the site. The site is about 300,000 square feet of land, and that translates, in Hines' plan, into about 1,000,000 square feet of development.

There is nothing wrong with this size of a development at this site, and the heights Hines proposes are also reasonable.

But the mix of uses is wrong. Drastically wrong.

Hines is proposing a mix of about 60 percent commercial, mostly job-creating post-production and similar uses with a little retail, and about 40 percent residential. The draft LUCE calls for less commercial on the site, 40 percent, but even that would be too much.

While normally cities benefit from jobs, the context is that Santa Monica allowed a vast overbuilding of office space under the 1984 general plan, approximately 9 million square feet instead of the 4.5 million planned for. It will take the City at least 20 years of allowing the building of nearly exclusively residential development to make up for this.

Last year I opposed the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), the aim of which was to reduce commercial development in the city. My opposition was not because I disagreed with that goal, but because I disagreed with tying the hands of the City Council to shape development policies in the city. I trust that when this plan reaches the Planning Commission and the council, that they will revise it and reduce the job-creating component. I hope they also change the LUCE.

Post-production and office developments typically generate three or four jobs per 1,000 square feet of development. Even 400,000 square feet of this at the Papermate site, the amount the draft LUCE might allow (as opposed to the 579,000 under Hines' plan), could mean 1,600 more jobs. The 600,000 square feet of housing that would be developed under the LUCE might typically generate 500 units of housing (or more or less depending on the configuration of the units).

If you assume that on average each condo or apartment had 1.5 working people living in it (a typical figure) the development under the LUCE standards would generate easily twice as many workers than could live there -- so much for building housing in the industrial areas of the city to help solve its jobs/housing imbalance.

This is not simply a matter of traffic, although fear of traffic congestion will drive opposition to the project. In anticipation of this opposition, Hines has put together a credible package of traffic-reduction strategies for the project and is counting the fact that the location of the property near the future Expo station will reduce traffic.

But an out-of-whack jobs/housing balance creates other problems. We in Santa Monica and the rest of the Westside are coping with the housing shortfall created by the overbuilding of offices on the Westside that started in the '60s with Century City, without a comparable increase in housing. The biggest problem is not traffic, but the cost of living here (which in turns increases traffic because it creates long distance commuters).

A big part in the LUCE is to incentivize workforce housing, but we have a workforce-housing problem because the prices of homes that were once affordable to the middle and working-classes have increased as executives and other high income employees and professionals working in those offices want to live near work. The problem is exacerbated because office developments create many more jobs per square foot of land than the factories they take the place of.


When the Hines plan "floats up" to the Planning Commission next month and then later to the City Council, the commission and the council need to tell the developer and City staff to analyze, on both financial and environmental grounds, alternatives that call for at most 10 or 20 percent commercial development. As a carrot to the developer, the City should allow all the "converted" commercial square footage to be built as market-rate housing.

It is not clear now whether, when the economy recovers, the office market or the residential market will recover first. Currently the Los Angeles region has surpluses of both offices and homes, and financing for any development is hard to come by.

But it's clear that because of its concentration of jobs -- second only to downtown Los Angeles -- the Westside will always be a good market for housing. Allowing Hines to develop considerable amounts of market-rate housing, which Santa Monica needs along with affordable and workforce housing, should provide a return that will be enough to finance the street improvements we need for the site as well as an appropriate amount of targeted workforce and affordable housing.

* * *

Last week I reported on various transitions affecting Santa Monica notables, and this week there are two more transitions, one individual and one corporate, worth mentioning.

An event happened back in the beginning of November, at the annual convention of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), that perhaps didn't receive as much notice as it deserved -- Dennis Zane, who has been involved with SMRR from its very beginning, 32 years by his count, stepped down from the organization's Steering Committee.

Mr. Zane has become increasingly involved in county-wide transportation issues since being one of the leaders of the successful campaign for Measure R last year, and he told me that he no longer had the time to devote to SMRR business. He said that, except for consulting work he performs for Santa Monica College, he no longer had a direct role in Santa Monica politics.

It's hard to imagine Santa Monica politics without Mr. Zane. Somehow I suspect he'll remain involved. But I certainly hope that he'll be as effective getting subways built as he was with this agenda here.

The other transition is the demise of Santa Monica's remaining homegrown bank, First Federal, which, having gambled disastrously in the subprime market, was taken over last week by the FDIC and sold.

Santa Monica not long ago had two banks -- First Fed and Santa Monica Bank, which was acquired by US Bank. Both banks and the families that owned them were important players in both the city's economic development, through lending and investments, and its community life, through their involvements with local charities and other civic projects.

It's especially sad to think of the First Fed disaster when you consider the lifetime of work and careful management that William S. ("Bill") Mortensen, the long-time leader of the bank, put into it -- and what he put into Santa Monica. Here is how the bank quoted Mr. Mortensen in a press release the bank issued when he retired as Chairman in 2002 after 45 years at the bank:

"'I am proud of the financial performance of our Company and the important role that it plays in our community. I believe the Company is well positioned for the future, and am confident that the ongoing leadership of the management team will continue to serve the interests of our stockholders, employees and community in the future.'"

Sadly, Mr. Mortensen's faith in his successors was misplaced.

To make a political comment, the fall of a bank like First Fed reminds us that the world cannot be divided neatly into the myths of the Left or the Right. Left-wingers should be reminded of how important capitalist institutions like local banks are for the growth of a community and its institutions. Right-wingers should be reminded that it's not only government bureaucrats who make bad decisions.

* * *

Other than to cover an emergency, The Lookout won't be publishing next week, and that goes for me, too. So I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone reading this a Merry Christmas (to be celebrated either religiously or secularly, as you choose) and a Happy New Year.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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