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Perpetually Planning  

By Frank Gruber

April 12, 2010 -- At the workshop last week on the updates to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of Santa Monica's general plan (See story April, 09 2010 LUCE,) Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer asked the crowd how many of them had been at the initial meeting of the LUCE process, which took place in January 2005 at John Adams Middle School, and about half the audience, including me, raised their hands.

While the response was an indication of how indefatigable Santa Monicans can be, I doubt that anyone at the 2005 meeting expected the LUCE process would still be going on going on six years later.

Now that the Planning Commission and the City Council will be making final decisions about the LUCE, it's tempting to hope that we are now in the endgame, but we're not. The most surprising revelation at last week's meeting, at least to me, was the word from Planning Director Eileen Fogarty that following the adoption of the new LUCE, the City would begin new processes to develop specific plans for about a dozen locations -- including nearly all those areas where significant growth is anticipated or permitted under the LUCE.

And that's not all. After the new LUCE, the City will have to go through an equally arduous process of drafting new zoning rules. Then, regardless of the zoning, the LUCE as drafted would require that any building over 32 feet in height will require discretionary planning review and negotiation of "public benefits" -- meaning, more planning.

It appears that Santa Monica is going to be in planning mode for a long time.

I admire so much that planning staff and their consultants have written up in the LUCE; if published as a book, it might be the best explication of good thinking about urbanism on the market today. Nonetheless as I contemplate the LUCE as a working document, I have more than a little grumpiness.

It seems both compulsively detailed and unpredictably open-ended.

This dichotomy has at least two consequences that also run at cross-purposes. One is that delay in finalizing the new plans for the future would be, as Council Member Pam O'Connor predicted way back in 2004 when the process began, a tactic used by opponents of development. But the other countervailing consequence is that because life goes on, and property owners can't or won't always wait for the certainty of clear rules before seeking to develop their properties, there has been and will be more and more pressure on the City to enter into development agreements.

Which is ironic. The anti-growth minority in Santa Monica despises development agreements, and yet the whole reason development after the LUCE will be so discretionary, which encourages development agreements, is that our city government, at the staff, commission, and city council level, have so far collectively not shown the gumption to set clear standards, for fear of offending no-growthers.

I don't blame staff. They walk a political tightrope. They can draft a plan with all the right values, but they can't make the decisions to implement those values. It is now up to Santa Monica's elected and appointed officials -- on the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council -- to bring some finality to the process and certainty to the plans.


What do they need to do?

First, make changes to the LUCE to make it more general -- save the specifics for the zoning ordinance. Then question the need for specific plans -- they will only prolong what's already gone on too long. Lastly, get to work on a new zoning ordinance -- to create rules that both property owners and the public can rely on.

* * *

Not all of my grumpiness is about the process -- some is substantive. What was incomprehensible at the meeting last week was staff's attempt, through a report from the City's financial consultant, to sell the idea of building more "creative office space" in the eastern part of the city with the reasoning that only by doing so could the City maintain the level of services it provides to residents.

The consultant, Kathe Head of the Keyser Marston firm, tried to make the case that the economy of Santa was uniquely "creative" because 9 percent of workers in the city are engaged in creative pursuits, which she said was double that of any other city. But Ms. Head didn't put that in perspective; she presented no data about what percentage of jobs in the city are in other fields, such as tourism, healthcare, or research. (But then perhaps this shouldn't be surprising -- Gary Gordon, of the Main Street Merchants Association, spoke at the meeting and said that the word "tourism" never appears in the executive summary of the LUCE.)

Nor did Ms. Head give data about how Santa Monica's 9 percent compares with districts of other creative metropolises that are at least as big as Santa Monica; i.e., I wonder what the creative jobs percentage is in Hollywood, or in Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side of Manhattan? Santa Monica is not the creative heart of L.A.

Nor did Ms. Head present data about Santa Monica's overall revenue situation, and how different development scenarios would affect it. The gist was weird; Santa Monica, which has per capita tax revenues among the highest in the state,would go broke if it doesn't allow for more post-production facilities?

What's going on? The LUCE embodies the notion that the city needs more office jobs, so long as they're called "creative," even though double the square feet of offices that were anticipated by the 1984 general plan were built. These offices would be located on formerly industrial lands in the eastern part of the city. Those properties are the best areas left in the city for building significant amounts of housing.

The issue is not finding a perfect formula for the "jobs/housing" balance. As the City's transportation consultant, Jeff Tumlin, explained at the meeting, one can't look at the ratio of jobs to housing as an isolated factor; one has to look at it in connection with transportation options (at least if what one is concerned about is traffic).

But Mr. Tumlin was also (characteristically) candid enough to say that ultimately the issue of how much housing or offices should be built is a matter of the character of the community that Santa Monicans want to have.

I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about that over the next few months.

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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