Santa Monicans may disagree bitterly over whether Proposition T will help curb the Westside’s egregious congestion, but they do agree that the Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic has more than lived up to its acronym — RIFT.
The raging local battle over a measure that would cap most commercial development at 75,000 square feet annually for 15 years pits a half-dozen local unions against an equal number of neighborhood groups, and residents against residents. In some cases, parents who once worked together to benefit public schools are barely speaking.
Prop. T has so divided the city that its two biggest and most outspoken political groups — Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and the local Democratic Club — have ducked the issue entirely, and one school advocacy group might unravel amid growing fury over its steering committee’s vote to oppose the measure.
But the real money against Prop. T is pouring in from firms based in New York, Houston and Chicago that own prime Santa Monica real estate; architects; and representatives of both groups. Fearful that a victory could ruin their development plans and inspire similar movements in congestion-riddled Southern California, those parties account for 98 percent of contributions against Prop. T.
The measure has made for some truly strange bedfellows. By October 1, developers had pumped in nearly $730,000 to bankroll a bizarre coalition of liberal tenant leaders who oppose the proposed commercial limits, and the business interests those same renters have been fighting with for years.
“This has shaken Santa Monica politics to its roots,” says Diana Gordon, leader of RIFT. “It has unearthed a million-dollar alliance between developers and parts of the progressive political establishment. Now they are hitting [us] with a full-scale assault, backed by truck-loads of cash…. They’re on track to outspend us by 20 to 1.”
“It has been divisive,” says Tom Larmore, a land-use attorney leading the battle to stop the growth limits. “The people who are supporting it figured they wouldn’t have any trouble passing it, and that’s not happening.”
The measure’s supporters fell into debt after spending the $86,898 they had raised by October 1. Still, they are confident voters will take out their anger and frustration toward traffic when they go to the polls. They gathered more than 10,000 signatures, relatively easily, to place the measure on the ballot — but needed only 5,957.
The slow-growth movement “has come from the residents saying, ‘We’ve had it. This is enough,’” says Santa Monica City Council member Kevin McKeown, who backs the measure. “It saves us.”
His view is opposed, however, by five of the seven local City Council members, local school board and college board members, state Senator Sheila Kuehl and unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and municipal employees.
Opponents insist that slashing the construction of office towers and other commercial buildings will not cut traffic in Santa Monica. But that argument didn’t appear to gain traction with dubious residents, so now opponents are floating the notion that the city treasury needs the developer fees for other programs.
Prop. T “is opposed by the broadest coalition in our city’s history,” Councilwoman Pam O’Connor argues in a debate that’s been rerun numerous times on Santa Monica’s “City TV” station. “It will cause city services to decline,” she insists, “and it will hurt our schools. It will hurt all of us. It will hurt our children and our future.”
Their dire claims are pooh-poohed by supporters of the cap, including Councilman Bobby Shriver, California first lady Maria Shriver’s brother. He argues that strained claims linking developer fees to residents’ safety or a child’s education are “cheap scare tactics.”
“City revenues are not at any near-term risk,” Shriver says. And if Santa Monica does lose money, “for whatever reason, funding for public safety and helping our schools are two of the last items in the city budget that would be cut.”
By October 1, Prop. T’s opponents had raised $728,880 and spent $368,399, which they are using almost exclusively to send glossy color mailers to Santa Monica’s 45,000 households.
A Chicago developer has given $185,222; a Houston developer has given $99,000; a New York developer has given $49,000; and a California developer, a limited partnership called Bell-Vue Plaza, has given $100,500.
“People in our city are fed up,” says Ellen Brennan, an activist. “They’re watching the city disappear into developers’ pockets. We have architects on the Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board who are there primarily to promote their own businesses.
“Their whole thing is develop, develop, develop,” Brennan says. “As a result, the residents feel completely shut out.”