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Planning Forever?

By Frank Gruber

December 20, 2010 -- During last week’s City Council meeting, the Planning Department outlined the years of work ahead needed to implement the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) that the council approved last summer after six years of agony. In public comments, opponents of the development proposed for the old Papermate site told the council that no decisions should be made about the project until a master plan for the area is complete.

Somewhere in the middle of that I started to wonder if Santa Monica was locked into some kind of endless planning nightmare zone.

I mean, you might want to take a look at the flow charts the Planning Department included in the staff report describing the processes for developing the plans for downtown and the area around Bergamot Station. (To download the staff report, go to the December 14 agenda and click on the staff report for Item 4-A.) They’re beyond Rube Goldbergian, and there is no way, based on past experience, that they will be completed in the time frames the department predicts (about 18 months for the downtown plan and 11 months for Bergamot).

I also thought about the planning nightmare zone when I attended the scoping meeting two weeks ago for the environmental impact report (EIR) for the Papermate site project and listened to project opponents say it was too early to approve anything, because the master plan wasn’t finished yet. Actually I thought to myself, “Haven’t they read the LUCE? Don’t they know that this project has been approved in the LUCE already?”

That’s right -- the nearly one million square feet of development on the 300,000 square foot Papermate site, of which 60 percent will be commercial development, is what the LUCE calls for to be built there. And don’t the opponents know that an EIR was done for the LUCE, and that the council certified it? Do they think the EIR for the project is going to be much different?

I say this as someone who spent a lot more time opposing the LUCE development standards for the area about Bergamot Station than anyone from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City did. I wrote a number of columns saying that development in the area should be only 20 or 30 percent commercial. Meanwhile the usual no-growther suspects ignored that elephant in the room and made silly arguments about a few feet of building height.

But now that the City Council has approved the LUCE, can’t we call the delay game over?

And to all the “residents” (I put that in quotes because even thought they lose elction after election they consider themselves Santa Monica’s only residents) out there who have the fantasy that the council members approved the LUCE because of campaign contributions from developers: your delusions don’t help your cause. The council approved those weighted-toward-commercial development standards, at floor-to-area ratios of 3.0 and more, because in the small areas of the city that the LUCE left open for new development the council members wanted to maximize the usefulness of the Expo light rail and make sure the City had a solid fiscal future, and to get that they followed the advice they got from their professional consultants.

In the midst of my nightmares I’m also flashing back to the beginning of the LUCE process, when Council Member Pam O’Connor warned that delay would be the tactic used by the anti-development party. That’s when the LUCE was supposed to be finished in two years. It took six, and now the Planning Department has outlined a full-employment program for planners and consultants for the next several years to prepare specific plans and area master plans and zoning ordinances.

What we really need is for the City to set general rules and then hear what the developers come up with. Then hire a few good architects who know something about urbanism to critique, from the public’s perspective, the plans the developers put forward.

Maybe with the economy the way it is more delay won’t matter, but there’s an issue of governmental process that won’t go away. People -- even if they are developers -- have the right to be able to rely on decisions governments make. That’s one element of fairness. But what if the government never makes decisions?

* * *

Talking about making decisions -- the 111th Congress of the United States made a big one last week when first the House and then the Senate repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Especially if the Senate also manages to ratify the START treaty with Russia later this week, then I hope President Obama’s critics on the Left, who so bitterly complained about his deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years (meanwhile creating a huge stimulus for the economy by obtaining many benefits for unemployed workers and middle-class taxpayers), will recognize that perhaps the president knows more about politics than they do.

At least if you consider politics the art of getting things done, and not the habit of feeling morally superior but losing all the time.

The crucial vote to close debate on the repeal of DADT came on the same day that Democrats in the Senate were not able to stop the filibuster on the “DREAM” Act (the bill that would have given illegal aliens who were brought into the country as minor children a path to citizenship if they went to college or joined the military). The DREAM Act’s cloture vote failed because five Democrats joined 40 Republicans to vote against it.

When it came to the actual vote on DADT, it turned out that eight Republicans joined the Democrats and the two independent senators to vote for repeal. Apparently, according to news reports, these Republicans felt empowered to vote against party leadership because of the overwhelming popularity, as shown in polls (see Polling Report), of allowing gays to serve in the military.

Yet the DREAM Act couldn’t muster the votes, because nearly all Republican senators and five Democrats wanted to please citizens who will not tolerate any “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Indeed, the polling numbers for the Dream Act were not as good. (See the Gallup poll on the bill)

So -- when it comes to fairness, Americans are now more willing to see the injustice of discriminating against gays than they are willing to recognize that of denying legal status to immigrants whom no one can charge -- at least in a moral sense -- with having broken any laws when they entered the United States, because as children under the control of their parents they could not have formed the intent to break the law.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the Left had won the culture war over the past 40 years but had lost the economic war. (See "WHAT I SAY -- The Great Trade-Off, Novmber 29, 2010) I can’t think of a better illustration of this than the votes on DADT and the DREAM Act.

Notwithstanding the constant drumbeat about how intolerant Americans can be, for a few generations now they have been becoming steadily more tolerant about anything that -- or anyone who -- does not challenge them economically.

Gays in the military -- no problem. But immigrants in the military -- wait a minute.


And on that cheery note, best wishes for a merry Christmas to all my readers, whether you celebrate the holiday on a religious or secular basis (or both).

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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