In a preview of what is sure to be a long and spirited debate leading to the November election, the City Council on Tuesday, June 24, listened to – and expressed – a variety of opinions on the relative merits of the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE) of the City General Plan, which is still under consideration by the Council, and the Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), which has qualified for the ballot with over 10,000 signatures.
The LUCE plan is the result of years of community meetings, Planning Commission hearings, and ongoing City Council consideration with public comment, and the RIFT plan is an initiative sponsored by Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) that has found a groundswell of support from petition signers. Although Councilmember Kevin McKeown expressed the hope that both plans could be reconciled to work together, it seemed clear that the LUCE goal of flexible guidelines that would allow (some would say, encourage) greater development in some parts of the city is at odds with the RIFT goal of placing an absolute cap on citywide commercial development of 75,000 square feet per year.
In the end, the Council voted not to adopt the RIFT limitations to LUCE as written, but rather to place the initiative on the November ballot, with several Councilmembers welcoming the prospect of a public debate and referendum on the issues of growth and traffic.
The Consultants’ Reports
RIFT would place an annual limit of 75,000 square feet of new commercial development in Santa Monica for the next 15 years, excluding schools, hospitals (but not medical research facilities), religious buildings, and certain “other community-serving development” from the limit, according to SMCLC, which says that the purpose of the initiative is to “fight overdevelopment and traffic congestion.” After SMCLC presented over 10,000 petition signatures – nearly twice the 5,800 required to put it on the ballot (10 percent of the registered voters) – to the City Clerk on April 23, the City Council on April 29 directed City staff to conduct a study and report on potential impacts of the initiative.
That report was presented June 24 by a team of four City consultants as “a factual, impartial evaluation of the proposed [initiative], assessing the potential positive, negative or neutral economic, fiscal and traffic impacts of the initiative over its duration: January 2008 through December 2023,” according to the staff report. The four consultants “are currently working on the Land Use and Circulation Element Update,” said City staff.
The report, in the form of a Power Point presentation rather than a written report, was generally critical of RIFT, and emphasized the advantages of the more flexible approach toward development taken by LUCE. Economist Paul Silvern of HR&A Advisors, Inc. said the effect of RIFT was “overwhelmingly negative,” except to landlords who might benefit from higher rents resulting from restrictions on the supply of new space. Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard transportation consultants argued that RIFT could result in “a modest increase in vehicle trip rates into Santa Monica, if local services are displaced by regional services” operated by larger companies that could better afford higher rents.
On the other hand, citizens offering public comment were almost uniformly in favor of RIFT rather than the LUCE approach. Speakers criticized the City for using the same consultants to evaluate RIFT as the City was using in developing LUCE, rather than using “independent consultants,” and the public complained that the on-the-spot Power Point presentation deprived them of the opportunity to review a report in advance and prepare any response before the Council meeting.
Diana Gordon of SMCLC called the consultants’ presentation a “propaganda hit piece”; Lorraine Sanchez of Friends of Sunset Park (FOSP) said that the LUCE reference to an “urban village” was a contradiction in terms; and Susan Hartley of FOSP feared that LUCE would turn Santa Monica into “Playa Vista North.”
Tom Larmore, outgoing Chairman of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, had a different opinion. He defended both the integrity of the City consultants and the LUCE approach to development, and he urged the defeat of RIFT.
Both from their questioning of the City’s consultants and their discussion following public comments, it was clear that Councilmembers had differing views.
McKeown was clearly the most sympathetic to the RIFT limits, and he argued that “a cap on development would force the Council to make hard decisions.” Councilmember Ken Genser questioned whether RIFT would have any practical effect on development, since the major developments around the Water Garden area (near Olympic and Cloverfield Boulevards) were all approved prior to 1988 and recent development – storage facilities, motels, and housing – either did not generate much traffic or were exempt under RIFT.
Councilmember Bob Holbrook said that new medical research development, which would be jeopardized by RIFT, were “as important as housing or places of worship.” Councilmember Pam O’Connor said that it was “not clear that a cap [on development] will work as well as you think, although it could,” citing her professional experience working on planning in the City of Pasadena. Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom was most outspoken, saying that RIFT was “designed to divide the community” – he called it “the rift, aptly named” – and that the flexible LUCE plan still under consideration was the product of an open and public process.
Mayor Herb Katz and Councilmember Bobby Shriver did not attend the meeting.
Perhaps ironically, and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, it was McKeown who moved that the Council put RIFT on the November ballot rather than vote to itself adopt it as an amendment to LUCE, citing the benefits of an open public debate and referendum on development and traffic – a sentiment shared by many Councilmembers.
The Council was also required to authorize certain members to author ballot arguments if any of them were to do so. Genser offered the politic and seemingly prescient suggestion that the three Councilmembers not standing for reelection in November be authorized to author ballot arguments on RIFT – McKeown in favor and Holbrook and O’Connor against – and the resulting motion passed unanimously.
In other action, the Council approved expenditures of more than $1,260,000, covering matters from engine overhaul services on transit coaches to purchasing biodiesel fuel for city vehicles and generators, and it issued a commendation to the Samohi boys’ soccer team (in attendance) for an undefeated season in which it won the CIF Division IV and Southern State Regional Championships.