Opposes Development Initiative
By Jorge Casuso
April 2 -- Calling it a misguided attempt to tackle traffic
congestion, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce last week opposed
a proposed ballot initiative that would limit new commercial development
to 75,000 square feet of floor area a year.
Chamber officials said the measure sponsored by the Santa Monica
Coalition for a Livable City, which would be in place for 15 years,
could stymie much-needed projects and is based on a premise that
has not been proven and may in fact be faulty -- that curbing commercial
development relieves traffic congestion.
A major problem with the Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), chamber
officials contend, is that the term “commercial” development is
so broadly defined it encompasses projects that are beneficial to the city.
“The definition of commercial development is extremely broad,”
said Chamber President Tom Larmore. “This goes far beyond office development.
The commercial development definition includes a whole raft of things.”
Among the developments capped by the proposed initiative are hotels, which
generate little or no additional traffic; medical facilities that complement
the two major hospitals, and movie theaters to replace the outdated venues Downtown,
“It is important not to discourage these,” Larmore said, “but
they don’t fit in with the professed goal of the initiative, which is
to reduce traffic.”
In addition to curbing potentially beneficial projects, the initiative could
discourage building the workforce housing its sponsors support, said Larmore,
who is a real estate attorney. Because such housing cannot be deed restricted,
it will most likely have to be subsidized by commercial development on site.
The City Council, which must vote either to adopt the measure or
place it on the ballot, will likely have to define such terms as
“workforce housing” and “neighborhood serving
uses,” which are exempt under the proposed initiative, said
Chamber officials, who voted to oppose the initiative at their board
meeting last Thursday.
“What’s likely to happen is all kinds of controversy
about what those terms mean,” Larmore said. “By expanding
their exclusions, you’re undermining their vision.”
In addition to using vaguely defined terms, the measure sets too low a threshold
for development, chamber officials said.
If the initiative had been in place last year, the 75,000-square-foot threshold
would have been used up by a new 60,000-square-foot hotel Downtown and the addition
of a new floor in an existing manufacturing building that will be used for storage,
“When affordable housing with ground-floor retail comes along, you can’t
do it,” Larmore said.
A provision in the proposed ordinance allows developers to borrow future square
footage with City approval, but Larmore thinks that is a bad idea.
“By borrowing from the future, you’re limiting what you can do
in the future,” he said.
Larmore also questioned the initiative’s premise that cubing commercial
development will curb traffic. Santa Monicans, he said, would continue to drive
in and out of the city and commuters from neighboring areas would still drive
through to reach new commercial developments elsewhere.
“If there’s a demand, if it doesn’t go here, it presumably
goes someplace,” Larmore said. “No one knows how much traffic is
people coming through town. No one knows that.
“They have no way of knowing if this will accomplish what they what to
accomplish,” Larmore said.
Sponsors of the measure quickly reacted to the chamber board’s decision,
saying it does not reflect the concerns of chamber members who “have repeatedly
cited parking and traffic congestion as major problems which need to be redressed.
“RIFT would reduce and control future commercial development and the
increased traffic congestion it would bring,” coalition officials wrote
in a response to the chamber’s action. “As anyone who lives or operates
a business in Santa Monica knows, we don't have the capacity to handle a lot
“But from the Chamber Board's perspective, more commercial development
is just what we need. The current processes, which allowed unchecked commercial
overdevelopment are good.”
Coalition officials said studies, including one done by the City, “conclude
that commercial projects typically generate greater environmental costs in electricity,
water, waste and public services than the revenues they generate.”
“We know that more commercial overdevelopment will threaten the economic
health of our community,” said Diana Gordon, the coalition’s spokesperson.
“We must begin to responsibly control our growth and traffic before we
are swallowed up by it. And RIFT provides the solution."
Proponents contend the measure would help stem “an unprecedented expansion”
that added 8.6 million square feet of commercial development between 1980 and
2004 and led to Santa Monica’s current traffic and parking woes.
The initiative, which was submitted to the City Clerk in January, came half
a year after the City Council rejected a moratorium pushed by neighborhood groups
in favor of an emergency interim ordinance that requires development agreements
for large projects in Santa Monica’s industrial corridor.
Residents, who had been clamoring for a citywide moratorium, were dismayed
by the ordinance -- which covers projects that contain more than
7,500 square feet of floor area or more than 15 housing, artist
studio or single-room occupancy units -- saying it did not go far
enough to curb major development.