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Like Old Times
By Frank Gruber
August 29, 2011 -- The City Council hearing on the Hines Papermate-site project last week was a “déjà vu all over again” type moment, except that when 50 members of the public speak, it’s not a mere “moment.” (Council Gives City OK to Begin Negotiations with Hines, August 25, 2011.)
It was like old times to see a big crowd out to discuss a development, although it’s still like an alternative universe for me when 30 opponents of a project show up and the council votes against them. In the old days, two or three could appear and that was enough for the council to flip a policy 180 degrees.
Like old times, but times have changed.
One constant though is the rhetoric of delay. Delay is a basic anti-change tactic. There are always terribly important reasons to delay, but last week plan opponents focused on the lack of a draft environmental impact report (DEIR) and the fact that the City is in process of preparing an “area plan” for the district that include the site that won’t be complete until next spring.
Never mind that approval of a “float up” has no legal significance and is merely a device that the council added to the development agreement (DA) process a few years ago to get the public involved earlier in the planning of big projects. Before “float ups” the council never had a DEIR when it began negotiations on a DA.
As for the area plan, it’s something that’s called for the new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan for both the Bergamot Transit Village (BTV) (where the Papermate site is located) and the nearby Mixed Use Creative District (MUCD), but don’t expect any big changes from the development standards that are in the LUCE.
Under the LUCE, the area plan will address “key issues, including a new grid of green streets with connections to surrounding streets, a parking district to consolidate parking into shared facilities and a district-wide TDM strategy.” The LUCE may overuse the word “village,” but it’s not like the area plan is going to call for turning Santa Monica’s former industrial areas, where the LUCE expects most of the city’s future development to occur, into a tapestry of rural England.
Comments from Council Member Kevin McKeown epitomized the delay strategy. Mr. McKeown couldn’t decide just when he might have sufficient information to vote on a float up and move into negotiations, as opposed to “discussions.” He was sure that he needed the information that would be in even a conceptual DEIR, but then said that “perhaps” he wouldn’t be able to vote until the area plan was complete. But then after the area plan, you got the feeling he wouldn’t be able to vote until he had construction drawings, since he said that Hines wouldn’t get an “A” on its report card until it had produced actual designs that solved all issues the City had raised.
Maybe the most lucid moment of the evening occurred when Council Member Robert Holbrook asked why anyone should think the opponents will accept the area plan.
Because isn’t that the meat of it? Let’s be honest -- the no-growthers opposing these developments around Bergamot -- not only Papermate, but Lionsgate and other projects in the pipeline -- don’t understand the LUCE. I mean, maybe they don’t want to spend the time it takes to read the 500-page document, but you’d think they’d at least look at the pictures, which all glorify urban living. There’s not a thatched roof anywhere.
But the déjà vu didn’t end there. The hearing also reminded me that the crucial issue for the redevelopment of the industrial lands is how much housing will be built.
At the hearing last week, both opponents of the plan, and some supporters, like Council Member Terry O’Day, lamented that Hines was proposing that only 30 percent of its project would be residential, notwithstanding that the LUCE says that the ratio of residential to nonresidential development in the BTV should be 40/60. (While the BTV ratio in any case is a district-wide goal that is not meant to apply to each project in the district, Hines got to its percentage of 30 percent by applying the 40 percent to the project’s “net new development” (i.e., the development in excess of the existing 200,000 square feet of the empty Papermate plant). This formulation is consistent with the Planning Department’s interpretation of the 40/60 ratio, namely that it is supposed to apply only to net new development.)
It bugged me to hear anyone, in particular the opponents of Hines’ plan, bring up the amount of housing as an issue. The reason is that during the development of the LUCE I argued in this column repeatedly that development in the former industrial areas needed to be predominantly residential to counterbalance the millions of square feet of commercial developments that were authorized in the 1980s in the area.
Only a few residents tried to make this point before City Council -- notably former Mayor Paul Rosenstein, who warned the council that by authorizing considerable new commercial development in the area they would be repeating the mistakes made in the 1980s, and some planning commissioners, in particular Commissioner Ted Winterer.
The no growth community was silent about this issue, concentrating their negative energies on a meaningless few feet of building height.
In response to the arguments for more housing, planning staff and consultants argued that most of the development in the area should be commercial, for the economic health of the city (i.e., to keep tax revenues high and public expenditures low) and to encourage more riders on the Expo line. Staff’s position was that most future residential growth in the city should be along the boulevards, although it’s clear that development on the boulevards will be at best a slow process.
The City Council responded to the arguments for more housing by increasing the percentage of housing in the Mixed Use Creative District from 40 to 50 percent, but otherwise the council accepted staff’s reasoning. Not one council member objected to staff’s recommendation that development in the BTV be only 40 percent residential. (For more detail about how this played out, see my column Playing the Percentages, June 28, 2010 )
At the same time, planning staff tells everyone that their goal for the BTV is a community that will be active “17 hours a day, seven days a week” (“17/7”). But this won’t happen if the City only requires relatively trivial housing development in the district. It’s a mathematical certainly that applying the 40 goal only to net new development is never going to result in a community that is 40 percent residential. Unless more housing is built, along with a hotel or two instead of some of the office development, the district will at best be active only “12/5.”
The fact that the ratio does not apply to every project gives some hope that under the right circumstances in the negotiations of the development agreement with Hines the City, assuming it wants to, might be able to negotiate for more residential development. That is because if the DEIR finds that there will be traffic impacts, those impacts can be reduced if Hines replaces commercial development with residential.
To get Hines (or any other developer) to build more housing, the City will need to make housing more likely to be profitable. All I heard Tuesday night, however, were plans to make residential development less profitable, by requiring it to subsidize additional affordable housing, in the name of “public benefits.” While the building of affordable housing requires subsidy, and it must be built, it makes no sense to require that it be subsidized by market-rate housing, since Santa Monica has a shortage of all kinds of housing.
The City has it backwards: affordable housing requirements should be placed not on market-rate housing, since all housing on the Westside of L.A. is a public benefit, but on commercial development, which creates a need for low-wage employees (janitors, parking lot attendants, etc.), who need affordable housing.
As many speakers, even those asking for delay of the project, stated last week, Santa Monica needs this project to make the BTV and the MUCD work. No serious person wants Hines to walk away; we don’t need another factory conversion like the Red Bull headquarters. Meanwhile Hines wants to make a deal because projects like Papermate are its business. There are many issues to resolve. It’s good that negotiations will now begin.
* * *
Of all the people I’ve known in the world of Santa Monica politics, Millie Rosenstein was among the coolest. She had this quiet, been there, done that, seen-it-all demeanor that was combined with and belied by real curiosity about whatever was going on and whomever she was talking to. She’ll be missed.
She’ll also be remembered at a memorial Saturday, September 24, at 3:00 p.m. at the Broad Stage.
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