By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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taxes, and would make it more difficult to expand facilities that complement Saint John’s Health Center or replace outdated movie theaters downtown.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.”