Michael Feinstein, Santa Monica City Council Member
Last week, the Mirror misreported my position on a critical March 7th housing policy vote, incorrectly implying that I was out of step with neighborhood concerns on development. In fact, I did not vote in favor of increased development standards as the Mirror suggested, and I have been an ally of residents against overdevelopment for many years.
At issue last week was inclusion of affordable housing units on-site within multi-family housing projects. State law already provides for a ‘density bonus’ of extra units, if a developer includes an affordable unit on-site. City staff had analyzed the city’s applicable development standards, and suggested that to provide still further incentives to developers, buildings could be wider, higher, contain more floors and provide less guest parking.
I voted ‘no’ on these proposed changes, arguing that we should not negatively impact neighborhoods with such increased densities. I pointed out that there were other ways to achieve affordable units on-site that do not threaten neighborhood character. Inexplicably, this was reported as ‘defending the density measure’.
It’s always important to correct the record on significant votes. In this light, I also want to respond to recent Mirror editorials suggesting the entire current City Council is being unresponsive to, and is uninterested in, resident concerns.
Last Tuesday’s vote demonstrated the Council’s awareness of issues of scale and character in the multi-family neighborhoods. A year ago, the Council successfully addressed the same issues in the single-family neighborhood North of Montana Ave., regarding the so-called ‘Monster Mansions’. In both cases, the council listened closely to community concerns about overdevelopment and quality of life.
These kind of City Council responses have led one prominent neighborhood organization board member to email Council members after last week’s vote, saying “if you folks keep being this responsive, pretty soon we community activists types won’t have anything to complain about.”
Contrast that ‘pro-neighborhood attitude’ with that of the previous City Council from 1996-1998. It was only a couple of years ago, that then-Councilmembers Ebner, Rosenstein, Holbrook and Greenberg voted to defund Santa Monica’s neighborhood organizations, and end the city’s proud 15+ year history of directly supporting resident involvement through their neighborhood organizations.
In 1999, the current City Council reinstated funding for the neighborhood groups, and the City Manager dedicated part of a key staff member’s time to liasoning with the neighborhood groups. The city also developed the Leadership Series, which is dedicated to bringing residents into the process through seminars devoted to explaining in depth how city government works. After this clear and renewed city support, there are now neighborhood organizations in every neighborhood for the first time ever.
Just a few weeks ago, these organizations came together to the Council with a set of recommendations on how residents could be better informed about city process. The Council’s response? Without hesitation, it immediately directed the City Manager’s office to work with various City departments to see how to address these goals.
Even before this request came, Councilmember McKeown and myself have been closely working with our Information Systems Department to develop a Web Information Network (WIN), to provide residents better and easier access to their government. Among its features, WIN will contain an ‘email noticing system’, where any community member can choose from a menu of topics and then automatically receive email notices with information on city events and meetings, as well as staff reports on topics of their choice.
In addition to addressing development concerns, the new Council has also conducted successful neighborhood processes in the Pico neighborhood. The first brought to a conclusion, the long-awaited final plan for the Virginia Avenue Park expansion, incorporating a great number of ideas that came from community advisory members.
A second process involved a high-level inter-departmental city staff team assigned to the Pico neighborhood as a whole, working with a 30-member Pico Neighborhood Advisory Council on quality of life issues there. Many viable ideas came out of this process. Some have already been included in the current year’s budget and others are contemplated for next year and beyond. This effort was so successful, that a similar effort is being considered by the City Council for the South Beach neighborhood next year.
No City Council is perfect and there is always room to be even better. But I do believe it not accurate to suggest, as the Mirror has, that this Council is not responsive to neighborhood concerns, especially at this critical juncture in our city’s evolution.
In particular, unlike its immediate predecessor City Council (that had a very different political majority), this City Council has undertaken bold measures to respond to the immense development pressures the city is undergoing. The Council has moved to preserve affordable housing and economic diversity in our residential areas, to respect the scale of our neighborhoods, and to preserve the best of our architectural heritage there, while ensuring that new development complements what we already have.
In our commercial areas, while the new Council has not approved any major new developments, the city is unfortunately feeling the impacts of unnecessarily large developments like the Water Gardens and Arboretum, which were approved by a pro-overdevelopment City Council more than ten years ago, but are only now being built. We are saddled with that legacy, along with being surrounded by poor planning choices in neighboring Los Angeles. Our efforts to expand local bus service by 20%, and improve pedestrian safety by adding and enhancing crosswalks citywide are significant responses. But they can’t make excessively large developments already built go away.
However, one large development that was approved several years ago won’t happen — the giant commercial office park along Ocean Ave. that RAND was going to build. The Council’s historic acquisition last year of 11.4 acres of RAND property – of which I was a driving force (and which was approved by all Council members except Rosenstein) – means we can now substitute public open space and parks, in place of unneeded development that would have clogged our streets with additional traffic and parking problems. I also successfully brought a motion to the Council (approved by all except Rosenstein and Holbrook) for the City to explore ways of opposing the immense Playa Vista project in nearby Los Angeles, which, if built, would negatively impact Sunset Park and Ocean Park with its pass-through traffic, as well as worsen the traffic and parking situation on Lincoln Bl.
These are the kind of gutsy moves that are not just responsive to neighborhood concerns, but are proactive in support of them. In the last three elections, residents have responded to overdevelopment approved by past City Councils, by electing three new members – myself and Council members McKeown and Bloom – who all came from leadership positions in their respective neighborhood organizations, and who all ran on controlling overdevelopment. Ten years from now, no one wants tolook back and say ‘what if?’, while we lament the loss of our quality of life. The majority on this City Council understands this, and is trying to do everything it can. If there is more we can do, we want to know about it. We live here too.