By Jorge Casuso
September 23 – Backers and foes of a ballot initiative
that would cap commercial development squared off in a spirited
debate last week that provided a glimpse of the strategies both
sides will use in the fight over Prop T.
The debate, which will air on CityTV throughout the election season, was attended
by council members and some of the City’s political heavyweights who came
to watch the two sides square off over the controversial measure formerly known
as the Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT).
If last Thursday’s televised debate is any indication, proponents will
play up the grassroots nature of an initiative that garnered the signatures
of thousands of Santa Monica voters frustrated by the city’s growing traffic
The initiative – which would cap most commercial development at 75,000
square feet a year for the next 15 years -- is “ a referendum on change,”
said RIFT leader Diana Gordon, using the catchword used by the 2008 presidential
“We must take stock of what creates the greatest traffic,” Gordon
said. “There is no question the commercial development is the cause. This
targets specifically commercial development.”
“Prop T will stop the traffic and the overdevelopment,” said Council
member Kevin McKeown, who was Gordon’s partner in the debate. “It
will stop the growth that’s strangling us.”
Opponents countered that while there is no empirical evidence that curbing
commercial development would alleviate traffic congestion, there is good reason
to believe it will reduce potential revenues generated by new commercial development.
That’s why opponents have forged “the largest coalition ever to
come together in our City’s history,” said Council member Pam O’Connor,
who represented the opposition in the debate. “Measure T will not reduce
traffic. It is full of uncertainties and loopholes.
“It will cause City services to decline, and it will hurt our schools,”
O’Connor said. “It will hurt all of us. It will hurt our children
and our future.”
“It’s not an answer,” said O’Connor’s debate
partner Craig Hamilton, an education activist. “Measure T does not do
what it says it will do. What it does do is hurt City revenues. Measure T is
a risk we can’t take.”
But supporters don’t buy the argument that Prop T will hurt the City’s
ability to provide quality services, noting that the City’s budget is
now more than half a billion dollars and that it will likely continue to grow.
“We have multiple streams of revenue,” McKeown said. The funds
that would be potentially generated by commercial developments curbed by the
cap are “additional icing on an already well-iced cake.”
In fact, Gordon said, Prop T would save money because the City would not have
to pay for infrastructure upgrades and other costs associated with supporting
potential new development.
But O’Connor cautioned that the current economic climate could change.
“There’s global economic uncertainty,” she said. “We
don’t even have a State budget passed.”
To which McKeown retorted, “Let’s get out of the climate of fear.”
Opponents of Prop T repeatedly touted the endorsements of key groups including
the School and College boards; education unions; the Police, Firefighters and
municipal workers unions, as well as top City and State officials.
Supporters of the measure, which has the backing of the LA County Democratic
Party, countered that the opposition is bankrolled almost entirely with developer
“Ninety-nine percent of the funding is not from some broad coalition,”
Gordon said. “It’s from developers from as far as San Francisco.”
If commercial development is limited with a “tight allocation cap,”
O’Connor argued, it “takes away broad discretion, wide community
“The richest developers with the biggest pockets will win the beauty
contestes,” she said, referring to the competition for the limited square-footage
If anyone would be responsible for such an outcome, Gordon countered, it would
be the City Council “that would allow the wealthiest developers to fit
under the cap.”
Placing a cap on development, McKeown argued, doesn’t eliminate discretion.
“It just means there’s a point where we just say, ‘Enough,’”
he said. “We will choose those projects that will most benefit the community.”
A major bone of contention at the CityTV debate, as well as at a similar debate
in August at the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) convention,
was the impact Prop T would have on rent control tenants.
Opponents contend that by making it difficult to build in commercial districts,
developers would be forced to move into residential neighborhoods, where they
would build market rate apartments and condominiums.
“Measure T will not do what it claims,” O’Connor said. “Measure
T is an outdated planning model. It puts renters at risk.”
Backers of the measure countered that the mixed-use projects being built across
the City, and especially in the Downtown, contain little commercial space and,
consequently, would use up little of the allocated square footage under Prop
“Prop T does not impact those projects,” Gordon said. Developers
could continue to build mixed-use projects “without much impact.
“The argument that somehow it can’t be done is preposterous,”
Prop T, Gordon said, “does not put residential at risk.”
Opponents of the measure contend that the proposed update to the City’s
Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) is a more effective way to fight traffic
by concentrating larger mixed-use buildings near public transit in exchange
for “community benefits.”
City officials have said the plan would result in “no new net car trips,”
a contention opponents aren’t buying.
“Prop T is a measure that has come from the residents saying, ‘We’ve
had it. This is enough,” McKeown said. “It saves us. We can’t
build ourselves out of being overbuilt.”