The Santa Monica City Council will welcome Sue Himmelrich at its installation ceremony on Dec. 9 after a convincing second place victory at the Nov. 4 election. In the race for the three four-year seats on the Council, Himmelrich place second out of a field of 14 candidates with 9,262 votes (15.6 percent) behind incumbent Kevin McKeown (10,138 votes/17.08 percent) and ahead of incumbent Pam O’Connor (6,696 votes/11.28 percent).
For anyone who has not met you before, can you share a little about yourself?
I’ve lived in Santa Monica for 22 years; I’m an attorney with Western Center on Law and Poverty. This is the first time I’ve ever run for office. When I say “ever run for office,” I mean I didn’t run for class secretary in the second grade. I have been on the Planning Commission in Santa Monica for two years and realized that it was important to have the final say on things.
What made you want to join the Planning Commission, which was an appointed position by the City Council?
It was very sudden. I became involved in Santa Monica politics so to speak when I was working to support Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in representing the residents who were facing eviction by the Village Trailer Park development agreement. That development agreement as people may remember was rescinded in December of 2012 because it didn’t conform with the LUCE (Land Use and Circulation Element). Enough council members believed that it didn’t conform with the LUCE and it was rescinded. There just wasn’t enough affordable housing. There were 16 units when it was rescinded and now there are 39 I believe. That was the basis for the rescission – I made the demand that the City fix the affordable housing and a month later the City Council put me on the Planning Commission.
When did you decide you would run for Santa Monica City Council?
It really wasn’t something I decided to do. It happened primarily because (Congressman) Henry Waxman retired and I thought that (SMMUSD school board member) Ben Allen would run for City Council, but when Henry Waxman retired and (state Senator) Ted Lieu decided to run for Waxman’s seat and Ben decided to run for Ted Lieu’s seat, a couple of people approached me and asked if I would run for Council and I said yes.
What would be the main reason you said yes?
I think I can make a difference. I think I bring a different perspective. I’m not an insider. I have worked with SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights), I’ve worked with the Santa Monica Democratic Club, I’ve worked with Residocracy in connection with the Hines project, I’ve worked with most of the organizations in Santa Monica, but I am not firmly a part of any of them. You have many people who are involved in Santa Monica politics who have been involved for 20 or 30 years with a certain organization or with a certain slant. I came in as pretty much an outsider with, I believe, a different perspective on Santa Monica.
When you do join the City Council on Dec. 9, there’s a feeling that it’s going move away from being a pro-development council to a slow-growth council majority with a 4-3 vote. Do you feel that way?
I think that’s probably correct. I believe you need to look at adaptive reuse before you look at scraping a lot and building anew. I – as everyone now knows – am not in favor of condominiums on top of hotels on Ocean Avenue. I think that we are a very dense, saturated city already and we need to figure out some of our density problems before we forge ahead with a lot more density.
How important is slow-growth and do you think Santa Monica residents finally decided this is what the city needs after all this time?
I’m not sure the residents didn’t decide that before. There’s a school of thought, I think, among many of the consultants to the city and maybe the existing council that we need to continue to rev our economic engine in order to make Santa Monica a place that continues to function as it does. I think because of that belief, we now have 250,000 people during the day, and 90,000 at night. I can tell you: I drive to Koreatown for my job in the mornings and I sail there in 20 minutes yet I see these people waiting to get into Santa Monica and I feel for them. It’s terrible, but it’s because of our jobs/housing imbalance.
The Fairmont Miramar Hotel launched an attack against you during the campaign. Is there anything that they could do with their proposed project plans that would make you vote to any changes at that land, or are you in a position where you don’t think any change is needed at that property?
I think the issue of that was primarily the condominiums on top of the hotel. I am finding it hard to understand why they wouldn’t begin with their existing tower and existing buildings, why they can’t begin with that and figure out what they want to do from there. I’m concerned if they scrape that lot and deprive us and the workers of four or five years of revenue, that it will hurt us. It seems to me that, again, we should be looking first at adaptive reuse of what’s there, and only if that’s not a feasible thing that we should look at starting anew.
With regards to the Frank Gehry project proposed for Santa Monica Blvd. and Ocean Ave., do you think a high-rise is appropriate at that intersection?
Again, it’s not that it’s a high-rise. I do believe that we are raising height too readily, particularly along Ocean Avenue which at this time has a 45 foot limit and is actually pretty nice to walk along. That being said, it’s not just the height – it’s the condominiums – the multi-million dollar condominiums on top of hotels. I have nothing against hotels – hotels are a great revenue source for us – but it is the condominiums. I think we’re seeing that in the Related property across from City Hall. When Related’s management company came in front of us on the Planning Commission we asked who was buying those condos which are apparently 50 percent sold and are going for as much as $15 million They told us that there were some overseas investors and some local people, and I don’t know who will be living there frankly.
What message would you have for any developer who’s looking to come to Santa Monica with a mixed-use development for them to have a chance at getting the new Council’s nod of approval?
I’m not the only arbiter of this, but we’ve been doing this at the Planning Commission: we want larger units, those are priority projects. If it’s going to be a larger project, at least 20 percent affordable units. We’re starting to see that as a regular matter now. Santa Monica has become so expensive that the people who are holding most of the jobs in Santa Monica can’t to afford to live here and that’s something that if we want to maintain the fabric of our community, if we want to have the excellent schools with Santa Monica children in them, and we want people to be living closer to where they work so they can spend more time with their family. We need larger units, we need family units, and that’s been our emphasis for quite a while.
Is there anything else the city could be doing to provide more affordable housing?
It’s interesting that you ask about that because of course Measure H, which I supported – and very vocally supported – went down in flames. Measure HH appears to be passing but that doesn’t do us very much good. As everyone repeats over and over again with the loss of (state) Redevelopment (funding), we’ve lost our source of much of the funding for our affordable housing. We need to find new funding sources for affordable housing and we need to beef up our affordable housing production program which is provided by for-profit developers in connection with their market rate units. I have not figured out a solution for this.
Have you dived into the City of Santa Monica’s budget to see where possible cuts may lie?
I have looked at the budget and I’ve been looking at the budget from the very beginning. I feel if you follow the money you can figure out where you’re going to go next. I don’t know quite enough about it yet because I haven’t been through the process. It seems to me there should be some direct funding for affordable housing. Of course we have some HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) funds, I think if we are emphasizing the rehabilitation of existing buildings rather than building new affordable housing buildings we may get more bang for our buck.
With the City of Santa Monica’s agreement with the FAA regarding Santa Monica Airport expiring June 30, 2015, what is your vision for SMO and how the land should be used?
I’ve always thought it should be a park first and foremost. Santa Monica is included in a comparative indicator study that Santa Barbara does every two years that looks at beach towns including Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, and I think maybe Redondo or Hermosa. We have the lowest ratio of parks to people of any of those cities. They are all beach cities so it’s not an excuse that we have the beach here. We don’t have enough parks. Parks are important not only because people need to be in open spaces in order to relieve some of the stress of living in a very urban environment, but also because the green in parks helps make our air better. There are various reasons that we could have more parks and should have more parks and I would support turning the airport into a park even if it’s not Tongva Park per se.
Do you think it’s realistic to turn the airport into a park with the FAA wanting to continue its operations?
I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to anybody from the FAA. I supported (Santa Monica ballot measures) Yes on LC, No on D. I think ultimately based on what’s happened with other smaller airports and the plethora of airports around Los Angeles that are smaller, I think we could prevail if we are persistent.
Are you for the complete shutdown of the airport or a partial shutdown of the airport, in a perfect world?
In a perfect world, I think a total shut down is the desirable result. We should get rid of the jets from the airport, based on the studies that I’ve seen, which show that the jets form noise pollution and air pollution that pose the greatest risk to us not only in terms of pollution but in terms of threats to adjacent neighborhoods.
Can you share which part of Santa Monica you live in and what you love most about it?
I live on 14th Street north of Montana and we moved to Santa Monica in 1992. We were living in Mandeville Canyon; my sister-in-law lived at 17th and Alta with her four children and we had dinner every Sunday night and we wanted to live closer to our family. We wanted a place where our kids can ride their bikes and where we had sidewalks. I have to say I think the neighborhoods in Santa Monica are fantastic. Each one is unique, each one is special. I’ve loved the people I’ve met here and I’m looking forward to being more involved with all the neighborhoods in Santa Monica.