We’d like to set the record straight. We’ve all seen a lot of hyperbole over the past two weeks about the Land Use Voter Empowerment initiative. We’ve read the doomsday scenarios. They say it would be a disaster somewhere akin to the sinking of the Titanic and the explosion of the Hindenburg. Our economy would be ruined, jobs would be outsourced and a great wall built around our city. Hmmm…there are also claims that our traffic woes will be solved, rents will never rise again and the sky will always be blue over our Santa Monica.
Let’s look at the claims of one anti-LUVE (How can you be against love?) press release from a business group in our town. They claim our local economy would be devastated by the passage of this voter-powered initiative. They talk of higher taxes, declining revenue and a stagnating economy. The Truth: Our Santa Monica economy is strong. Overcrowding and increased density would diminish the world-class visitor experience that Santa Monica offers. That experience drew 7.9 million tourists last year and pumped millions of dollars into our local economy. Allowing multiple new mixed-use developments would not help our economy. These developments would strain our infrastructure , exhausting our already stretched city services. The pressure to constantly raise taxes is already on the city’s agenda. There is talk of a ¼ cent sales tax increase and another stab at increasing the property sales transfer tax on this year’s ballot. All of the recently approved development has not eased the pressure on our city government to raise taxes and increase our yearly budget. Perhaps the groups that warn of financial doom and gloom if LUVE is passed should be advocating instead for more efficient use of our city’s vast financial resources.
There are claims that passing LUVE would hurt traffic. Those claims suggest that our city is part of and parcel of the “sprawling suburbs” and that LUVE seeks to decrease Santa Monica’s mobility. The Truth: Santa Monica is an over-congested city that is doing everything possible to encourage multiple forms of mobility within its boundaries. Here is one constant truth…more buildings bring more traffic. We cannot build our way out of our traffic issues. We cannot expand vertically and expect traffic to decrease. More means more. More residents equal more cars. You cannot legislate a person’s proximity to work and their residence. LUVE does not discourage the creation of great streets and the use of alternative forms of mobility. Our streets will be more walk-able if LUVE is enacted.
The claims that the initiative will hurt our residents and property owners are unfounded. The argument has been made that in case of an earthquake or tsunami LUVE would prevent the rebuilding of homes, apartments and small businesses. The Truth: There are at least four ordinances on the books in Santa Monica that address the re-building of structures damaged in a catastrophe. Section 9.27.040 addresses this claim directly. “An existing nonconforming structure that is damaged or destroyed by a non-voluntary fire or explosion, earthquake, or other natural disaster may be restored or replaced to its density (including square footage and number of room or dwelling units, as applicable), parking, building footprint and envelope, and height that existed prior to the destruction…” In addition, Section 9.27.020(B), Section 9.27.30(E), Section 9.27.040 all address this supposed issue. Finally, the City Attorney’s office reviewed LUVE in detail and found no clause that would bring about a negative impact on casualty repairs.
There are claims that under the LUVE Initiative our schools, hospitals and non-profits would be unable to expand in order to provide needed services in our community. The Truth: None of our public schools, from elementary through community college, are subject to Santa Monica City planning rules and regulations. They answer to the California State Architect’s office for their remodeling and new construction. Hence there would be no detrimental effect on our schools with LUVE . Our public hospital, UCLA-Santa Monica, also answers to the State Of California, not the City of Santa Monica, for both new additions and remodeling. We’ve already seen the continuing effects of the private St John’s Hospital construction. Our City Council has allowed this institution to dispense with a mandated and much-needed parking structure, and the hospital has fallen short on their Transit Demand Management Plans yearly. In addition, they are still proposing a new office tower.
You’ll hear continuous stories about our serious housing shortage crisis – suggesting that LUVE will limit the amount of people that can afford to live in Santa Monica. The Truth: The proposed initiative exempts truly low-cost housing from initiative oversight, thereby insuring that there are relatively few strings to be pulled for the creation of truly low cost housing. By passing LUVE, land speculation is decreased. Hence land values will begin to stabilize. It stands to reason that a parcel large enough for a ten-story, mixed-use building is worth more than one that is capped at three stories. The token low income, low-cost, housing that is trumpeted by developers does not significantly impact affordability in our city, but it will add profit to developers’ pockets. Our city must do more to keep our existing stock of apartments in operation. We cannot build our way out of an affordability crisis in Santa Monica. Using preservation as one tool, in addition to aggressively seeking to partially subsidize our lowest income renters, we can help. When developers take over, our lowest income, blue-collar residents are the first to go. The case study for this paradigm is the history of the former Village Trailer Park in the Eastern part of our city. Over 100 residents were forced to vacate their long-term dwellings to make way for an over 300-unit, mid-rise apartment house that dwarfs the other apartments and houses in the neighborhood. Those forced out of their homes and their city were “salt of the earth” residents who helped build Santa Monica. New housing didn’t help them, and it won’t help other existing residents. The exorbitant rise in the rents of the newly built housing offered them no choice but to leave our city.
The anti-LUVE forces have stated that creative tech start-ups will leave Santa Monica if it is enacted. They opine that employers won’t be able to attract a talented workforce to our city if a land use initiative passes. The Truth: Start-ups are here because of the low-rise, comfortable, creative beach atmosphere that already exists. As soon as our city becomes one that is a standard office environment like Century City or Downtown Los Angeles, the cool high tech companies will flee. They value our natural air-conditioning, our walkable streets and the difference that Santa Monica’s ambiance brings to the table. Our city is never going to be the home of behemoth companies. That’s a great distinction to have. Santa Monica is where companies are born, where they can be creative; where their staff can find small indie lounges and cutting edge restaurants to gather in. Our town is meant to be the refreshing alternative to a Los Angeles lifestyle. Our low-rise existing buildings that have been re-purposed give us flavor. LUVE will keep that flavor in Santa Monica.
The other side talks about the threat of lawsuits. The Truth: Three Southern California cities have adopted similar citizen-led initiatives. Sierra Madre, Yorba Linda and Encinitas have had one court challenge between them to their voter empowerment ordinances. That challenge is over density, not height. The wise citizens of Sierra Madre declared their wishes well. “The people of Sierra Madre find and determine that preserving the small town character of downtown Sierra Madre is of utmost importance, and residents of our city must not be excluded from major decisions. No city council or staff can possess the necessary community-wide sensitivity to make decisions that ensure the small town character will be preserved. Downtown development decisions that could deviate from our long-standing goals should be made by the entire city after a public debate and not by a few city hall insiders.” This statement is so simple, so clear, so akin to the wishes and desire of the residents of Santa Monica. LUVE will not lead to more lawsuits. It will lead to clarity for developers in our planning processes and a breath of fresh air for our residents.
The opposition says that empowering our residents to vote on major land development decisions is a bad thing. They talk about how it would harm our economy, our environment, housing, social diversity, transportation goals and more. The Truth: The Residocracy-sponsored LUVE initiative helps preserve this special place. What are we gaining if this initiative passes? We secure a low-rise Santa Monica that values its people, its visitors and its workforce – a city that has architectural integrity – a city that need not fabricate its sense of place, because it already has a unique, authentic style – a city with a heart and a “roadmap” for protecting our inclusive and diverse population. Ours is a town that lives up to its motto: “A fortunate people in a fortunate place”. A prominent member of our community often says, “You’re either on the menu or at the table”. LUVE ensures that our residents are always at the table.
Phil Brock for SM.a.r.t