Rocks Ahead

When a ship with full sails approaches a coastline in a dense fog, you can often hear the waves crashing on the rocks ahead of you, but when you can finally see them, it’s already too late.

Two weeks ago the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a misguided organization of blind sea captains issued its latest navigational chart for our region’s future. In it they called for Santa Monica to build 9059 new units or about a 20 percent increase in population in the next 8 years (2021-2019). Any realistic person understands that no amount of upzoning, height increases, density bonuses, or expedited permitting will reach that goal, since our already built out City has, with great effort and public cost,  “only” built a respectable 2192 units (about 1/4 were low income) in the last 8 years (during which time SCAG required “only” 1674 units to be built).

SCAG has been issuing these bogus housing goals every 8 years for the last approximately 40 years, all with the predictable result that many cities rightfully  ignore them because they do not agree with their goals, do not feel there is a fair share allocation of the desired housing’s burdens, resent the removal of local control and because the goals in the past had no effective enforcement or reward mechanism: all complaints that are still valid today.

The real problem is, of course, that even if Cities and Counties had followed SCAG’s questionable goals faithfully in the past, we would still not have reached regional urban success. For example, Santa Monica, which has substantially exceeded SCAG’s goals, is still  essentially unaffordable to most of its residents, still has its jobs-housing balance out of whack, is still running out of water, and is still in a transit mess with plummeting Blue Bus ridership and residents stuck in horrific traffic jams while scooter riders daily take their lives in their own hands. Piling on more housing will not solve any of these interlocked problems.

So, awash in a sea of lies (our population needs to grow-while it has essentially flatlined over the last 3 years; high-density construction makes housing more affordable- it doesn’t;  housing at transit hubs reduces traffic- it won’t) the State has this year myopically decided to weaponize the unbelievable SCAG numbers and start taking away state funds from Cities and Counties that can’t or won’t meet the imaginary SCAG numbers. So while cities were “free” to ignore  SCAG in the past, there is now a substantial penalty so that these delusional numbers can no longer be ignored.

Cities and Counties need to challenge both the methods of our opponent, Sacramento and SCAG, and their motives. Their methodology is easily challenged as it is a hopeless mishmash of vague terms such as “unit”, “transit-rich”, “job-rich”, “social equity goals”,  When you test their methodology you immediately see their inherent lack of credibility, their dirty data and their arbitrary fudge factors. Santa Monica, for example, has been assigned 1/3 more units per population than Beverly Hills (a traditional SCAG scofflaw) which is equally job and transit rich. While some Cities will be forced to take more than their fair share of housing, other cities for mysterious reasons will somehow get off scot-free. These inequities will keep lawyers busy for years.

The motives of SCAG are surprisingly constant in our evolving world. No matter that we have long since passed the plausibility and desirability of infinite growth, SCAG’s solution in 4 decades has always been exactly the same: build more and More and MORE; Thereby, surprise surprise, always meeting the needs of the financial, real estate and construction industries instead of our region.

The other more serious battle is the simple unattainability of SCAG’s goals. SCAG requires that Santa Monica magically produce about 4500 low or very low income units with no visible funding source. Since the private sector simply cannot build affordable units profitably, this becomes  at least a $2.2 billion public obligation or about 3 years worth of the City’s entire budget. In addition with current technology no building over 3 stories can be net zero (produces as much energy as it consumes) as required by the upcoming State codes. Santa Monica also wants and needs  to be water neutral in a few years which will be impossible with a 20% population increase. In other words SCAG goals, instead of producing a green region, directly militate against achieving such an urgently needed necessity. Finally SCAG is stuck in the old obsolete model of moving housing to jobs instead of vice versa. So SCAG goals  have sent, now with Sacramento’s enforcement, cities on a fools errand of an unfunded mandate, causing worsening global warming based on a retrograde development model. In other words the SCAG numbers are wish full thinking that need a reality check before we crash into the very real rocks of the limits to growth.

Its time for Cities and Counties to revolt and take back local control and if necessary  collectively sue the State and SCAG for their deficient planning, arrogant overreach and failure to chart a real and safe path forward for our City, Region and State.

Its time for our City council to grab back the tiller and steer our City to where we know it needs to go. There’s no time left for SCAG’s fantasy seamanship.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi

For Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson Building and Safety Commissioner, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner; Ron Goldman, FAIA;  Thane Roberts ,Architect; Bob. Taylor, AIA; Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner.