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Chamber 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or no additional traffic; medical facilities that complement the two major hospitals, and movie theaters to replace the outdated venues Downtown, Larmore said.

“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, officials said.

“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 more traffic.

“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.


“The definition of commercial development is extremely broad.” Tom Larmore


“They have no way of knowing if this will accomplish what they what to accomplish.” Tom Larmore


"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 for a Livable City


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