2011 has been principally notable for City Hall and the City Council’s consistent lack of interest in residents’ wishes and concerns.
The failure of the residents’ campaign to limit commercial growth, Prop T, in 2008 unleashed the City’s long-held belief that it knew better than we did, and that unfortunate belief reached a sort of climax this year.
Prop T failed, not because it was a bad measure, but because it was swamped by the developers’ investment of an estimated $730,000 in an ugly assault on Prop T. Ugly as it was, it sealed the City-developer partnership, and enlarged the division between the City and the people.
Highlights of the new partnership have included the City allowing St. John’s Hospital to continue to ignore its 1998 obligation to build a $40 million underground parking structure, going along with the Yahoo parking jamboree, its refusal to proceed with a federally funded Bergamont area plan preceding approval of any of the approximately two million square feet of proposed new commercial developments in that area, its premature approval of two such developments, the Lionsgate project at Stewart and Colorado, and the Agensys building now rising further south on Stewart.
As 2011 wound down, the City picked up the pace. The Council refused to order staff to explore all possible options to save the Village Trailer Park from demolition, and ensure the well-being of its residents, limiting staff to investigating the possibility of purchasing the property from the developer. City Manager Rob Gould estimated the purchase price at $30 million, but lawyer Rosario Perry, who probably knows as much or more than anyone in City Hall about real estate prices, put it at $8 million.
City Hall’s principal flack, Frank Gruber summed up the City’s position neatly. “From a public policy perspective, there is no way that the City of Santa Monica should put the interests, regardless how valid, of the 50 or so remaining households in the trailer park ahead of the benefit of a private developer creating so much housing in their place.”
At its last meeting, the Council approved the Urban Forest Master Plan, and re-upped the Urban Forest Task Force, but refused to give it any authority over City staff. Though the development of the master plan was punctuated by residents’ objections to portions of the plan, the Council apparently bought Public Landscape Manager Randy Little’s claim that residents didn’t know anything about tree biology. In fact, based on the statements made by residents at this and other meetings, they not only know a great deal about trees and species, they clearly know more than Little and chief logger Walt Warriner about Santa Monica, aesthetics and preservation of unique streetscapes.
At the same meeting, the Council approved the thoroughly ludicrous “civility principle.” And Mayor Richard Bloom immediately violated it by ordering the woman who owns and has faithfully preserved two of the landmark apartment buildings in Santa Monica – the Charmont and Sovereign — to stop her presentation of photos of her buildings and the totally unsuitable trees the City had planted around them, because she had violated the two-minute limit. His joy in imposing the limit has long been as visible as it is uncivil, but to cut off a demonstration of the staff’s carelessness, underscoring points that other speakers had made, was beyond uncivil, it was dumb. We needed to see the photos and renderings she had had made, for they were proof of the necessity of giving the Task Force authority to veto staff decisions.
At the same meeting, the Council approved a measure that will make it harder for political candidates to get on the ballot, though no one on the Council was able to explain why it was desirable, much less democratic.
In a first, the Council approved a Development Agreement for an apartment building at Fourth and Broadway in downtown Santa Monica, that has no on-site parking. In addition, the majority of its apartments are, in fact, 360 square feet “studios” that will rent for $1750 a month. The owners will be required to make a $125,000 payment to the City for “transit improvements.”
In another first, the Council moved a quarter of a billion dollars from the Redevelopment Agency into the General Fund. We were told it was simply an “accounting” move, but the City has been playing hide-and-seek with the cash ever since the Governor announced plans to shut down all the Redevelopment Agencies and seize their funds, as they are not being used to eliminate “blight,” as they were created to do, but financing “improvements.”
At the last meeting, the Council also discussed a staff proposal that would further limit smoking in Santa Monica. It would require that new hotels be smoke-free, and that apartment buildings owners designate apartments as non-smoking and smoking, based on the habits of existing tenants. When a smoker moved out, his or her apartment would be re-designated as non-smoking. In this way, eventually all apartments would be smoke-free.
Several Council members and a number of speakers dreamt out loud of a smoke-free town, but other people saw the dream as a nightmare. Among them was former Councilwoman Dolores Press who has long been profoundly concerned about the preservation of people’s rights. Buying, selling and smoking cigarettes is legal, after all, and both state and federal governments collect taxes that far exceed the actual retail price of a pack of cigarettes.
Executive Director Sarah Letts of the Community Corp. said that the staff proposal raised all sorts of questions for Community Corp. The fact that City staff had not consulted Letts in drafting the proposed ordinance suggested that it had been cobbled carelessly or in great haste or by zealots of some sort. Community Corp. builds and rents new apartment buildings and rehabs older buildings and its tenants include low income families and individuals and older people on fixed incomes. Not to involve it in the drafting of such an ordinance is as daft as attempting to make bread without consulting a baker, or even a recipe.
Among the general questions raised by the measure are individual rights, privacy, discrimination, prejudice, landlords’ using the measure to clear longtime tenants out so they can raise rents to market rate, longtime residents being forced to move out of Santa Monica because they can’t find apartments they can afford in which smoking is permitted. In addition, it favors the owners and renters of houses, and, probably, condo dwellers, over people who rent apartments,
Ultimately, the Council voted to require new hotels to be “smoke-free,” with member Kevin McKeown voting against it as the staff had not consulted the Convention and Visitors Bureau about the impacts of such a measure on Santa Monica’s flourishing tourist industry, but sent the rest of the measure back for a rewrite. Presumably, it will consult Community Corp. this time.
We look forward to 2012, not because we expect the Council to suddenly begin listening to and heeding residents. As the Transparency Project research shows, only two of the seven Council members – McKeown and Shriver – have not taken campaign donations from developers, but 2012 is an election year, and it’s possible the residents will win this time.