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Santa Monica: The Gridlock Wars Are Here 

The city is an inaccessible moat. Residents are going batty

Wednesday, Jul 9 2008
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MARK KREHER IS FED UP WITH Santa Monica traffic. When the streets are congested, it takes him less time to walk from his home on Ocean Park Boulevard to the Third Street Promenade — 30 minutes — than it does to drive and park. Public transit is no better. It took him 50 minutes recently to ride the bus home from nearby UCLA.

He is stuck inside the inaccessible moat that is the Westside. “I can’t go to a Dodgers game anymore. I can’t see my godson for his birthday in Pasadena. I haven’t seen my best friend in Glendale in two years,” says Kreher, who has lived in Santa Monica for 10 years. “We’re losing our greater community. It’s being sealed off.”

Now, Kreher is part of a growing movement taking its frustration to the ballot box this November. But instead of seeking money for improved streets or alternate modes of transportation, sponsors of the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) are targeting what they see as the root of their rush-hour woes — uncurbed commercial development.

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The measure on the November 4 ballot, which caps office towers and other commercial development at 75,000 square feet a year for 15 years, with some exceptions, garnered the signatures of more than 10,000 traffic-riled Santa Monicans in 10 weeks, far more than the 5,957 signatures needed.

And it has drawn the ire of liberal city officials who normally extol public involvement but now quickly denounce a measure that threatens their own plan to battle traffic while continuing to develop Santa Monica. Last week, Santa Monica City Council members grudgingly placed the slow-growth initiative on the ballot. But in a move that indicates how bitter the battle will be, they put forth a controversial “overnight study” filled with ammo that seeks to back a pro-growth approach.

But City Hall’s PowerPoint presentations and mind-numbing number charts (which purport that there is little Santa Monica can do about what is essentially a regional problem) may not be enough to counter the raw emotion engendered by sitting stalled in a car as the signal lights cycle.

“If we had 20 weeks, we could have had twice that many signatures,” says Diana Gordon, one of the leaders of the anti-traffic crusade. “It’s a phenomenon. Runaway development is killing the city, and this is the best opportunity to take it back. We got signatures from people with no spare time. They understood something big was at stake.”

RIFT’s sponsors say the groundswell is fueled by City Hall’s failure to stem development that has turned a quaint beachside town — once jokingly referred to as “Oshkosh by the sea” and a city for the “newlywed and nearly dead” — into a world-class shopping destination, and the home of media giants Google, Yahoo and MTV.

They accuse the supposedly green-minded City Council of ignoring calls by almost every neighborhood group to impose a moratorium on commercial development until after public and city leaders finish wrangling over the blueprint for long-term land use in Santa Monica. That blueprint, known in official jargon as the “Land Use and Circulation Element,” will shape Santa Monica’s skyline and business-district density for two decades.

Leaders from the city’s burgeoning slow-growth movement argue that the blueprint — which calls for much greater density in Santa Monica business districts — flies in the face of many residents’ wishes.

Yet as the debate raged on in “workshops” for more than three years, city officials approved commercial building after building, prompting Susan Hartley, a member of Santa Monica’s Airport Commission, to lecture the council several days ago that the workshops were merely “a charade. We’re going through the motions, and it’s already decided what the results will be.”

Echoing others, Hartley says, “Residents want less development.”

“There’s a failure to listen to the residents,” says Mary Marlow, who sits on the Ocean Park Association board. “We asked to keep a small-town feel. Let’s not become a regional center for media, for hospitals, for hotels. We’re not listened to. RIFT is the answer.”

In fact, Santa Monica’s population of 85,000 more than doubles each day as commuters press into an 8.3-square-mile city jammed against the Pacific Ocean, served by only one freeway and with no easy exit. Critics say it’s a terrible place to concentrate density.

“I’m outraged by the commercialization and gridlock in Santa Monica and the 11th District,” says Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl, whose district borders Santa Monica. “We have 200,000 cars going through every block in my district to get to work in Santa Monica.” A resident of Mar Vista, Rosendahl adds, “They raise revenue for their little town at the expense of gridlock on the Westside. My people are fed up with development.”

Six of Santa Monica’s seven City Council members strongly disagree that they, or the developments they approved, are to blame. Those six — the exception is maverick council member Kevin McKeown — vehemently oppose the slow-growth measure. They say hundreds of residents weighed in to support City Hall’s vision, which could result in taller, denser business districts.

Mayor Herb Katz fires off this shot: “It’s one of the most ill-thought-out, badly written ballot initiatives I’ve ever seen. They’ve given little or no thought to anything.” The measure, council members argue, managed to collect 10,000 signatures so quickly because voters were asked to sign a petition to fight traffic, a question that elicited an emotional, knee-jerk response. “If you say, ‘Do you want to fight traffic?’ people will say, ‘Hell yes!’” Katz says.

Opponents of the measure say RIFT would limit developments — including hotels — that bring in needed taxes, and would make it more difficult to expand facilities that complement Saint John’s Health Center or replace outdated movie theaters downtown. Business leaders say work-force housing will suffer in costly Santa Monica, where today, ground-floor commercial developments help to subsidize the rental units above.

In response to such criticisms, RIFT was written to allow dense, mixed-use commercial buildings if they offer a “neighborhood-serving use” — for example, a dry cleaner on the ground floor — and their upper floors are 100 percent dedicated to affordable housing. Pro-growthers retort, “What if I build a single apartment unit on top? Is that 100 percent affordable housing?”

Aside from exceptions for neighborhood-serving uses, the ballot measure allows only 75,000 square feet of new commercial space per year citywide. That allowance would have been gobbled up last year by a new, 60,000-square-foot hotel downtown and the addition of a new floor to a manufacturing building, opponents say.

“When affordable housing with ground-floor retail comes along, you can’t do it,” says Tom Larmore, of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the opposition. And opponents question whether curbing development will cut traffic, arguing that Santa Monica residents will continue to commute out of town, and outside commuters will continue to overwhelm local streets.

Scoffs Larmore, “They have no way of knowing if this will accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

City officials say their plan is more reliable: fighting congestion using a classic carrot-and-stick approach, plus some government regulation. But they are promising something that no still-expanding city in the United States has ever achieved: no new “net car trips” as they allow more and more growth in Santa Monica.

Says traffic consultant Jeffrey Tumlin, “There is no capacity to accommodate new trips. Let’s not pretend we can.” To achieve the promised zero new car trips, Santa Monica city leaders propose new development fees, upgraded traffic signals, carpooling, better bike lanes and higher parking fees. Like Los Angeles, they plan to concentrate development near public transit, such as hoped-for light-rail stations, encourage walking by locating shops and services near neighborhoods, and charging developers mitigation fees to manage traffic.

But Los Angeles, using a nearly identical set of “mitigation” and traffic-reduction ideas while adding density, has seen a traffic explosion instead. Santa Monica City Hall’s mantra of “no new net car trips,” RIFT supporter Gordon says, is “an inane, fanciful idea.”

Just one council member thinks the voter initiative is compatible with the council’s plan. McKeown, who backs the slow-growthers, argues that placing a cap on development “forces us to decide which things are the wisest, which things should go forward. ... It cuts commercial development by half, and that’s a good thing.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom, who believes RIFT “is designed to divide the community,” fears that Santa Monica’s measure could spark a movement throughout Southern California, where residents are growing increasingly angry over dense new development. “If RIFT passes,” Bloom warns, “[it] would perhaps encourage other communities to do the same.”

Reach the writer at jorge.casuso@miaminewtimes.com

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