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Council Sets Priorities for $77 million


By Jorge Casuso

June 16, 2009 – If you had $77 million and had to spend it fast, what would be on your wish list? That was the enviable question the City Council had to answer last week when it decided the fate of the remaining earthquake redevelopment funds it must earmark before issuing $273 million in bonds.

The council’s answer last Tuesday gave a brief snapshot of what the Santa Monica’s elected officials consider to be the most pressing needs of an increasingly upscale beachfront city – housing, traffic and parking.

It also generated some heated debate when it came to weighing the importance of each issue in actual dollar amounts, given the limited benefit of spending $300,000 to build or rehabilitate an apartment unit per household.

Council member McKeown made a motion to spend all $77 million on affordable housing. He noted that more than half of Santa Monica’s nearly 30,000 rent control units are fetching market rates under a 1994 state law that allows landlords to raise rents if a unit is voluntarily vacated or the tenant is evicted for failing to pay. (“More Than Half of Rent Control Units Market Rate, Report Finds,” March 7, 2007)

“We are continuing to lose people from our city who, I think, have earned their right to remain in Santa Monica,” McKeown said. “All these things (on the wish list) won’t mean much to people who can’t stay in Santa Monica.”

“This money presents an opportunity to do something transformational,” said Council member Gleam Davis, who backed McKeown’s motion. “This gives us money to come up with creative ways to keep people in their homes.”

The council recently used $44 million from a $75 million credit line with Bank of America to build or rehabilitate 143 units and is earmarking the balance. (“Santa Monica Uses Credit Line to Create 143 Affordable Units,” May 20, 2009)

As a result, the City will have only $5 million a year over the next 15 years for affordable housing, then $15 million a year for the subsequent 15 years, staff said.

Despite the rapid depletion of housing money, most council members opposed earmarking all $77 million for housing.

“It just seems like an enormous amount of money,” said Council member Bob Holbrook, “and it doesn’t solve the problem” of 15,000 rent control units turning over to market rates.

Although agreeing that affordable housing was the top priority, Mayor Ken Genser urged the council to use $27 million to acquire land Downtown to build new public parking structures under a plan to add 1,700 spaces by 2017.

Genser noted hat land Downtown has become increasingly pricey -- estimates place it at about $500 a square foot – as well as scarce. Still, he noted that the “lion’s share” of the money should go to affordable housing.

“It ensures this remains a diverse and mixed-income community, as that has been seriously eroding,” Genser said. “We have a chance to cobble together a substantial sum. . . . I think we’ve got to bite the bullet and do this.”

Holbrook urged the council to earmark $5 million to help ease traffic by upgrading signals in the Mid City area, where large high-tech and entertainment companies in the City’s industrial lands are contributing to traffic congestion.

Residents recently mobilized around the issue, mounting a campaign to place a measure on last November’s ballot to cap most commercial development in Santa Monica. Although the measure failed, it brought the issue of traffic to the forefront.

“People are complaining bitterly that they can’t get across town at certain hours,” Holbrook said.

Efforts by Council member Richard Bloom to set aside $16 million for a soccer field at the Civic Center that would be part of a joint use agreement with the School District failed, as did his effort to earmark more than $8 million to add parking on Pico Boulevard.

Davis was one of the council members who opposed the Pico funding. “I’m not convinced we want or need parking on Pico,” she said.

The issue, Davis added, should be taken up as part of the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), a document being drafted that will guide development in Santa Monica for the next quarter century.

One priority that gained some traction was capping the freeway by adding parkland along the overpass, an idea that has gained increasing support at public meetings. (“Residents Plot Future of Civic Center, Downtown,” May 13, 2009)

“Freeway capping needs to be there,” said Council member Pam O’Connor. “That’s a way to reclaim land.”

In the end, the council voted unanimously to earmark $43.6 million for affordable housing, $27 million to buy land Downtown for parking, $4.4 million to tackle traffic and $2 million to begin capping the freeway.


“We are continuing to lose people from our city who, I think, have earned their right to remain in Santa Monica.” Kevin McKeown

“People are complaining bitterly that they can’t get across town at certain hours,” Bob Holbrook

“Freeway capping needs to be there. That’s a way to reclaim land.”Pam O’Connor.

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