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Man Bites Dog Department

By Frank Gruber

May 2, 2011 --Something possibly unprecedented happened at the Santa Monica City Council meeting last Tuesday night. It happened early, in the part of the meeting when City Attorney Marsha Moutrie reports on what the council did in closed session.

Ms. Moutrie was reporting on the council’s discussion of a settlement proposal that the City had received from the attorney for the developers of two apartment projects near 7th and Arizona. The projects had become caught up in the interim zoning ordinance the council had passed in January, and which became effective in March, and which turned pending applications under administrative review for projects taller than 32 feet into development agreement applications.

The developers asserted that they had vested rights and the City did not have the right to make them go through the development agreement process, which would entail environmental review and cause them various other delays, while taking away any assurance, under the prior zoning, that they would be able to build the projects.

The lawyer for the developers proposed a settlement, however, that incorporated development agreement negotiations. Based on the council passing a proposed extension of the interim ordinance (the extension that I wrote about in my column last week) that would include a “Development Agreement Lite” option that would take advantage of an urban infill, state law exemption from environmental review, the lawyer proposed that the developers would negotiate a development agreement with the City for three months.

If at the end of the three months there was no deal, the City would agree that the developers would be allowed to return to the administrative review process.

It should be clear that there were advantages for both the City and the developers in taking this route. The City would have the opportunity to insert into the projects various elements of the land use and circulation element (LUCE) updates that were not formally applicable to downtown projects. By the same token, some of those elements -- particularly changes in parking requirements -- could be advantageous to the developers, and without having to undergo environmental review, the development agreement process would be less time-consuming, expensive and contingent.

And so Ms. Moutrie recommended that the council accept the settlement. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, it was -- a good deal for both sides.

Okay -- so what was possibly unprecedented? People being reasonable? No, I’m not that cynical.

One clue is that the lawyer who made the proposal for the developers was Chris Harding -- but then that’s no surprise, since Mr. Harding is the lawyer most identified, for 30 years, with the developers and other institutions that are most vilified by the no-growth element of Santa Monica politics, and probably the lawyer who has sued the City, or threatened to do so, most often on their behalf.

No, the surprise came when Mayor Richard Bloom asked for a motion to accept the settlement; who made it? None other than Council Member Kevin McKeown, the standard-bearer for the no-growth community.

Could this be the first time Mr. McKeown made a motion to accept an idea from Chris Harding?

I hope that the Israelis and Palestinians can follow this example and make peace with each other.

* * *

As for the extension of the interim zoning ordinance itself, as expected the council passed it (see story of April 29, 2011, City Council Tweaks Interim LUCE Ordinance), but I’m mollified by a couple of things.

First, there is the infill exemption to environmental review that looks to be available for the next four years or so since last year the City conducted an overall environmental review in connection with the LUCE. What’s unclear, however, is whether the City expects the exemption to apply to all projects or only to projects currently “in the pipeline.”

Planning Director Eileen Fogarty said that the “Development Agreement Lite” process would apply only to pipeline projects, but it’s hard to see how the state law exemption would not be applicable to new proposals as well. Perhaps this will be clarified when the actual language of the ordinance comes up for second reading.

The other reason the extension might not be so bad was, frankly, the rhetoric at the hearing last week. Planning Director Fogarty in her presentation of the staff report said that in no way should the ordinance be considered a moratorium on development. I’m not sure how she can predict that, but at least it’s something to hold the Planning Department to later on if people stop building apartments in downtown.

More important were strong statements from Mayor Bloom and Council Members Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day that they wanted development to continue downtown (“to build neighborhood” in Mayor Bloom’s words) and that they were satisfied that the interim ordinance would not would not disrupt this.

Mr. O’Day made the point that although he wanted to maintain existing incentives to build housing downtown, and had concerns about the interim ordinance, he saw the development agreement process as a way to start implementing the “state of the art” parking management tools in the LUCE, such as unbundling parking from rents.

To a degree this was a response to earlier concerns raised by Council Member McKeown that plans to allow the “sharing” of parking downtown -- which in practice means that property owners can rent out surplus parking spaces they have had to build in accordance with the City’s requirements -- would cause apartment renters to have to pay more for parking.

Mr. O’Day’s response was to focus on the unfairness of the current system that requires apartment renters to pay for parking (included in their rent) even if they don’t own cars.

And what’s the cost of that? The estimated cost of building an underground parking space is about $45,000. If you amortize that amount over 30 years, at 5 percent interest, the monthly cost is $242. Right now the City requires developers to build 2.2 parking spaces for each two-bedroom apartment; that means that without even counting maintenance, the monthly parking cost for an apartment is $532.

It’s true that rents are set not by costs but by supply and demand, but to get developers to increase the supply, they need to be able to predict that rents will cover their costs.

But then so many normally rational people believe that parking can be free, or is free. I remember a year or so ago having an argument with a woman who lives in the Wilshire/Montana neighborhood. She didn’t have a parking space in her building, and it was her view that in connection with future nearby developments the City had an obligation to require the developers to build parking for her and her neighbors. That was what she considered to be a public benefit.

When I told her that would be fine if she were willing to pay the cost of the space, or if she wanted a place to park that she should find one to rent, she accused me of “not caring” because I had a parking space where I lived. Well, yeah, I told her, my wife and I have a two-car garage that the City required us to build that cost us $50,000 (and which takes up one-and-a-half street parking spaces!).

Meeting Notice:

The Expo Line Construction Authority is beginning the design process for the light rail that is coming to Santa Monica, and will be holding its first public meetings starting next week. The first meeting will be in Santa Monica, at the Civic Auditorium East Wing meeting room next Monday, May 9, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.

Concert Notice:

In what could become an annual tradition, since they’ve done it before, Jacaranda, the estimable chamber music series based in Santa Monica (at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street), will present its final concert of the season in Barnum Hall on the Samohi campus this coming Saturday night, May 7, at 8:00 p.m.

The concert, called “Magic Realism,” will feature music from Latin America and (expanding somewhat the notion of “chamber”) an orchestra of 65 musicians.

For more information, go to the Jacaranda website

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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