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Coronavirus Crisis Fuels Development Debate

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

May 1, 2020 -- The financial crisis triggered by the coronavirus shutdown is reigniting a longstanding debate between pro-development and slow-growth forces in Santa Monica.

Developers and their allies argue that planning and zoning impediments must to be immediately lifted for the city to recover from a financial blow that, according to City officials, has resulted in the loss of $72 million in revenues over the past six weeks.

Critics question the revenue bounty promised by new projects and counter that developers are exploitng the crisis "to accomplish long sought but unpopular goals."

In a letter to top City officials last month, Santa Monica Forward, a political group largely bankrolled by developers, called on the City to ease zoning restrictions and fast track development projects.

"Given the scale and unpredictable impact of the crisis," the group wrote, "we believe that the City must be open to challenging long-standing assumptions and pursuing transformative new thinking.

The letter dated April 22 calls on "strengthening the 'can do' and 'we’re open for business' culture in City Hall."

Santa Monica should "accelerate the approval process for projects with high revenue potential," including three major hotel projects proposed for the Downtown, Forward wrote.

The redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar, The Plaza project on City owned-land and the Frank Gehry designed hotel on Ocean Avenue "have been shaped by years of community input," as has the proposed redevelopment on Lincoln between Broadway and Colorado, the group said.

These projects would provide millions of dollars a year in tax revenues and "offer thousands of well compensated jobs at all levels, as well as affordable housing.

"It’s time to process these projects now so that, if approved, they can open for business as the economy recovers," Forward wrote.

The group also urged the City to revise zoning standards that bridle development, streamline planning and design review and limit most review timelines to 90 days.

In a response sent Tuesday to top City officials, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) denounced Forward's use of the crisis "to dispense with long-established zoning regulations and other community protections."

"A crisis provides the disruption and turmoil powerful interests need to accomplish long sought but unpopular goals," the group wrote referencing Naomi Klein’s 2007 book "The Shock Doctrine."

The slow-growth group questioned Forward's key assumption -- that the city can build its way out of a financial crisis that has been years in the making.

"Over the past 25 years residents increasingly have shouldered the burden of additional property and sales taxes and fees," the letter said. "And the more the City has built, the more residents’ share of taxes has increased.

"There is no reason to believe, other than wanting it to be so, that more development will lead to solving our City’s current financial problems," the letter said.

Instead of rushing development projects through the planning pipeline, the City officials must "analyze all of the true costs to the City and its citizens once projects are built."

"Without knowing both sides of the equation, benefits AND costs, revenue projections alone are meaningless," the Coalition wrote.

The group also argues that the pandemic has forced a "paradigm shift" that requires questioning the need to build housing near jobs, when work will be increasingly performed remotely.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Mayor Kevin McKeown questioned why staff had included Forward on its list of "City Partners" and not other groups such as Santa Monica for Renter's Rights (SMRR).

"This is not intended to be an exhaustive list," staff responded.

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