21 Aug 2014
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Residents Win Marathon Against Developers

Residents Win Marathon Against Developers Residents Win Marathon Against Developers Residents Win Marathon Against Developers
The End is Near 

As stragglers headed toward the finish line, I, myself a straggler, looked for people on the sidelines who would sign my petition to halt the Hines Project, otherwise known as the “Bergamot Transit Village.” Many had been approached before I got on the scene, but within an hour I doubled the number of signatures I had collected during the 25 days that followed the City Council’s 4-3 vote giving Hines the “go ahead.” Walking back to my car, I saw the slowest of the runners looking discouraged and wanted to tell them they were doing the best they could and should feel pride in knowing that. But, I knew this message was really one I was trying to tell myself. As a former president of Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors (SMMCN), I and other neighborhood leaders had been running a three-year marathon ever since the Land Use and Circulation Element, known as the LUCE, was approved by the City Council. Though we were told the LUCE would set guidelines for development to protect our community, its passage was, in effect, the firing of the starting gun beginning a race between developers and residents to see who would win control our City. Being beaten on almost every issue that came before City Council during that time, most of us felt we were not doing enough, but we were doing the best that we could. This felt like our last chance to turn that around.

A Farewell Address to the City as We Knew It

Eileen Fogarty, who, 3 years ago, was Director of the Department of Planning and Community Development, had been working four years to craft a vision of Santa Monica as a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly city, with a light-rail heading down quiet streets, where new development would be controlled by a 3-tier process of approval, designed to allow the City to negotiate for community benefits to offset any harms created by new projects. A new City Manager, Ron Gould, had just been hired. Invited by the Neighborhood Council to speak to members of the community, he addressed them with the presumption that they opposed all development. He was surprised to discover that most people in the room accepted his metaphor of a city being like an organism, whose survival depended on bringing in resources from outside to replenish itself, just as plants and animals had to breath and eat to remain healthy and vital. The question was solely how to control that growth. We had been encouraged by Eilene Fogarty to believe that passing the LUCE would establish a process that would protect us. But, before leaving her office in June, Eileen hurried to put out a document, The Development Process, to help neighborhood associations preserve her legacy. Then, in her final meeting with the Neighborhood Council, she delivered a farewell address, reminiscent of Eisenhower’s, after he had participated in military expansion with U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union: "Beware the Military-Industrial Complex!" Fogarty warned her audience, “Beware the Developers and those who would help them to use the LUCE to their own advantage!” She knew there were loopholes in the LUCE. She put them there. 

Running the Gauntlet vs. Exercise in Frustration 

The LUCE provided for a series of meetings where the public could challenge developers and ask for what they wanted.  Running their projects through these community meetings, float-ups, community workshops, Planning Commission hearings, and City Council reviews would be like running the gauntlet to get their projects approved. But, instead of letting the community strike effective blows, City Staff, serving as mediators, absorbed these hits and filed them away for their staff reports. Residents soon saw these meetings as exercises in frustration, preceding a preordained victory for developers. Residents' honeymoon with the LUCE was over when the City Council approved revised Development Agreements proposed by St. John’s Health Center and what was then the Yahoo! Center. The City Council excused St. John’s from its agreement to provide on-site parking for staff, patients, and visitors and allowed the Yahoo! Center to have workers pay for on-site parking that had been free so that residential neighborhoods would not have to deal with the spilling-over of cars seeking free parking in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Exploring Options

But opposing outrageous plans offered by developers was not what brought neighborhood associations into being. Neighborhood associations developed and were approved to represent the interests of all the residents inside their boundaries. In the Mid-City area, neighbors were concerned about the number of accidents occurring on Broadway between 26th Street and Yale.  Also, commercial sites–some empty, others becoming available–provided opportunities for new businesses to start or for buildings to be torn down replaced by new construction. Being a leader of a new neighborhood association meant I had a lot  to learn if I hoped to serve the interests of residents in my area. I had to learn from my peers. But, it was apparent that the deck was stacked against us. I could see it was important for neighborhood leaders to become players in the decision-making game. Selecting David Martin to replace Eileen Fogarty as Director of Planning and Community Development, Rod Gould offered a chance for community leaders to meet with the new director to discuss their concerns. Soon, these meetings became monthly gatherings, where neighborhood leaders and planning staff discussed mutual concerns. Though, in truth, we were being used to test out proposals by eliciting our response, we were also using planning staff to educate ourselves about the process for getting projects approved. Using this inside track allowed me to talk to Sam Morrissey, the City Traffic Engineer, about residents' request for stop signs on Broadway. It also allowed me access to staff when trying to work out an agreement with other SMMCN board members to support Truxton’s request for approval of a Conditional Use Permit to start up a bistro-restaurant at 14th and Santa Monica. As a neighborhood association, we were seeking ways to promote responsible development in our area. And, we were also exploring ways to fight proposals we considered irresponsible, such as Fresh & Easy’s proposal to set up their store in the building Magnolia’s had occupied near the corner of Yale and Wilshire, where there were not enough parking spaces to accommodate both workers and shoppers.

Transparency and Election for City Council 

But, even though all groups were increasing in size and gaining greater expertise in dealing with the City, we knew no substantive change would take place without resident-friendly candidates winning some seats on the City Council. Though the members of Santa Monican for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) managed to endorse Ted Winterer on first ballot with Gleam Davis squeaking in on a later ballot, members kept Terry O’Day and Pam O’Connor from receiving an outright endorsement from the group; however, the Board of SMRR made a backroom decision to include O'Day and O'Connor on a 4-person slate they thought would win. Because of campaign shenanigans in the past, when mysterious PACs circulated specious campaign literature that shifted people's votes, neighborhood leaders formed a Transparency Group to discover who was funding various campaigns. As well, SMMCN, on its website, provided contact information for all the candidates running for office and announced all forums and meet-and-greet sessions that would provide the community with a chance to talk to those running for office. The intent was to raise the profile of candidates who might not have the money for mailers but deserved to have a voice in the election.  As a result of this, I had the opportunity to meet some of the outlying candidates whose ideas seemed worthy of attention.

City Council vs. Community 

While this innovation encouraged many neighborhood leaders to hold more Meet & Greets for candidates who favored residents having a stronger voice in determining the future of Santa Monica, most residents were swayed by the slew of campaign literature, much of it deceptive, which filled their mailboxes.  Tony Vasquez was the one exception; the union representing hotel workers went out en masse, knocking on nearly every door to let people know about his campaign.  When all the ballots were counted, 4 people who had received campaign contributions from Hines in this or in past elections sat on City Council along with 3 people who had not received such contributions from Hines.  As projects came forward for a vote, the Transparency Committee spoke out, asking people who received funding from developers to recuse themselves from voting on those developers’ projects. This did not happen, but something else, quite unexpected, did.

Armen’s Hammer Smashes the LUCE 

Armen Melkonians, one of the candidates for City Council, who worked as a civil engineer on many projects considered for development outside Santa Monica, submitted a document to the City Council and to the members of City Planning and Community Development, describing the LUCE as an attractive nuisance, bringing more development to Santa Monica than had been predicted by the LUCE and, therefore, exceeding the projections the LUCE had set as the viable limit for development over the next 20 years. Though people on the Planning Staff fumed over Armen’s figures, which they said were wrong, his document served as a hammer, smashing the notion that the Planning Staff’s figures were right. Soon, it became apparent that decisions by the City Council were arbitrary and that their justifications were merely post-hoc reasoning provided to justify conclusions they had reached before public debate had taken place.

Santa Monica:  The Birthplace of Residocracy 

Armen Melkonians then did what civil engineers do: He analyzed all the decision-making procedures of the city to see wherein lay the problem that was subverting the democratic process. Obviously, the high price of running a campaign for office and the need for financial support offered developers an opportunity to give their agenda added weight.  But, he, also, discovered a balance that had been put in place. If residents objected to a vote taken by the City Council, they could stop that vote from taking effect by gathering signatures of 10% of registered voters calling for a referendum. Working with community leaders he had met during the election and who had invited him to explain to their members his criticism of the LUCE, he developed a website–  www.residocracy.org – that would allow residents, identified by zip code, to post an E-Petition others could sign on-line and write comments, expressing their opinions on an issue, which, then, would be delivered to all City Council members before taking that vote. If the City Council vote opposed the will of the people, residents could sign an R-Petition calling for a referendum on that issue.  If, on the second reading of the motion, a majority of City Council members were to vote again to pass that motion, residents would have 30 days to gather signatures from over 10% of registered voters in Santa Monica to call for a referendum on that issue in the next election, unless the City Council were to rescind its prior vote. 

The Perfect Storm 

As developers with cool calculation and cold-blooded intent pursued their objectives, residents with heated resentment and hot-blooded purpose prepared their offensive. In that long race to see who would gain control of the City of Santa Monica, a perfect storm was brewing. The developers claimed that their largess in offering gifts to support early childhood education, affordable housing, and other pet projects favored by City Council members would make their profits the equivalent of the rising tide that raised all ships. But residents, instead of seeing this as a rising tide, saw it as a tsunami threatening to capsize other commercial enterprises, flood our major corridors with traffic, and wipe out any chance for developing a circulation plan capable of integrating public transportation with the Expo.

Quiet at the Center of the Storm

Having presented a context for understanding the significance of the Residocracy campaign, I would like to return to the L.A. Marathon where I tried to get registered voters from Santa Monica to sign my petition so that we might cross the finish line ahead of the developers. Most of those unwilling to sign said that they did not know enough about the project to take a stance. This told me that they were so caught up in their own lives that news that might have connected them to the concerns of others had not reached them. That was pretty easy to understand. But, in effect, their position, or lack of it, would affirm Pam O’Connor’s stated belief that leaders and activists in neighborhood associations did not speak for the residents living in their areas. Or, as a troop of Hines Project supporters described us, “these are a disgruntled minority of old folks who have forgotten how to smile.” Though many of us laughed at these comments, we knew that many residents had not been acquainted with these issues. And, those who were had practically given up hope that things might change for the better. 

How Winning could lead to Losing 

So, it was with some surprise that I discovered, when taking around my petition for a referendum on the Hines Project, that people were eager to talk about the possibility of change. Many shared ideas with me about what they would like to see our town become. They were enlivened to the possibility that they could make a difference in the future of this city. But winning this campaign to put a referendum on the ballot could lead to something much less than my neighbors were imagining. Instead of allowing the referendum to appear on the ballot so that it might engender a lively debate about what direction we should take in developing our city, those City Council members whose time in office might be affected by such an election, might rescind their vote to pass a more benign version of the Hines Project. If winning led to that, ours would be an empty victory. That's because the problem is not just the City Council or the developers, it is the residents and landlords of Santa Monica who no longer take responsibility for their community. As I walk through the neighborhoods of the Mid-City area with my dog, I pick up 5 times what my dog leaves behind. I see trash scattered along the sidewalk, untended gardens, and cups stuffed in shrubs. If we win and my neighborhood looks no better than it does right now, what kind of victory is that? When people believe their city no longer belongs to them, they stop caring about the city. When the Expo has been completed and strangers, leaving the station, cross onto our sidewalks, people will have even more reason to say that the problems of this city are not of their own doing. But, at this moment, we have a golden opportunity to engage people in an active, exciting discussion about what they, as residents, want their city to be. 

Losers, Stand up for your beliefs 

I would encourage those City Council members who justified their support for the Hines Project to stand their ground. If your reasons were right then, they are right now. Don’t back down in the face of serious opposition.  Speak up and let the dialogue begin! That is how we can all be winners in this contest of ideas. 

Should winners blame losers?

While neighborhood leaders, in winning this battle, might have the tendency to be righteous and condemn those they have beaten, they would do well to reflect on what Jonathan Haidt has to say in his book on that subject, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He writes that people’s moral reasoning is “shaped, tuned, and crafted to help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team . . .” (p 74) That applies to community leaders as well as to those who have supported the Hines Project. Still, as we have gotten to a tipping point, where enough people see a wrong needing to be redressed, it seems only right to hold somebody accountable. However, Haidt, quoting Phil Tetlock, whom he describes as “a leading researcher in the study of accountability,” says most of the time the pressure to be accountable does not lead to exploratory thought, an “evenhanded consideration of alternative points of view,” but to confirmatory thought, “a one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular point of view.”  For politicians, a “central function of thought is making sure that one acts in ways that can be persuasively justified or excused to others. Indeed, the process of considering the justifiability of one’s choices may be so prevalent that decision makers not only search for convincing reasons to make a choice when they must explain that choice to others, they search for reasons to convince themselvesthat they have made the ‘right’ choice.” (p 76) In other words, holding members of City Council, except at elections, would serve no useful purpose.

The Story of the Whale and the Big-Ass Snail

Kate Bransfield, well-known local real estate agent who surprised many by offering Residocracy use of her office space, told me once the L.A. Marathon had ended and I had turned my petitions so signatures might be counted, “I don’t blame the developers.” To offer her some comfort in making such a statement, I told her about a SMMCN meeting I attended where Tom Corcoran and Debra Feldman discussed their plans to replace the Holiday Inn at Colorado and Main with the Wyndham Santa Monica at the Pier. Feldman had told the L.A. Times what prompted the change, “Planning Director Eileen Fogarty told FelCor that the utilitarian property wasn’t going to fit into evolving Santa Monica.” So, given the narrow space between Colorado and the freeway, Tom Corcoran said they planned an 84-foot monolithic structure that looked like a giant whale. He said that Debra thought it would be more aesthetic if it were built with 3 tiers: the one nearest the ocean with 5 stories; the next, 8 stories, and the third, 11 stories with each of the top 5 stories divided into 5 separate condos, 25 in all, and a restaurant on top, reaching a height of 195 feet, which would make it by far the tallest building in Santa Monica. I told them it looked as though they had turned their whale into a big-ass snail. Someone asked why the City should approve building condos for the rich when the tax revenue the City would receive if these floors were divided into hotel rooms would be so much more. Tom Corcoran said they needed money up-front from the condos before the bank would provide the funding they needed to build the hotel. He said, “Personally, I would have preferred having it lower. There would have been less a struggle to get it approved by the City. But the height was the bank’s decision, not mine.” And, how would the City ever allow a building to exceed the heights already set for the downtown area? It is in an “opportunity center,” something slipped into the LUCE at the last minute before Eileen Fogarty had a chance to say, “No.” 

The Long View:  Too big to share 

Then Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Davis described the new fire station, set to be built just east of the main library on 7th and, conveniently, abutting Wendy’s on Lincoln. He said that it would have 2 levels of underground parking, then the station itself and one floor above for their offices. But, he said, they would need to continue to use another building for storage. When asked why that was so, he said that the banks said they couldn’t provide the City with financing for more that two stories. I asked whether anyone considered approaching them with an offer to build two floors with condos in exchange for another floor for storage. He smiled and shook his head. Strange, the bank would finance 11 stories for a commercial developer but would set the limit at 2 stories for the City they wanted to approve that commercial development. If we shouldn’t blame developers, should we blame the banks? 

The Short View: Rake in all the money you can as fast as you can 

That weekend, I talked to someone I was helping to prepare for the GMAT so she could get her Masters in Business. She worked at Bank of America in the commercial loan department. She told me the bank’s major criterion for financing a project: Get the highest and fastest return that we can. The value of the project to the community or to the developer was a non sequitur. What mattered to the person making the loan, who knew he might not be sitting at that desk a year from now, was a quick return at a high interest. She admitted that she did manage to get a loan approved for a non-profit doing something useful for the community, but it was a hard sell to her bosses. 

“We Run This City” 

Coming back from the Marathon, I saw two young runners walking down the street wearing T-shirts saying, “We Run This City.”  With my petitions still in hand, I asked them if they were from Santa Monica. “No,” they replied. I told them that was no problem, most of the people running our City weren’t from Santa Monica either. Most members of the planning staff couldn’t afford to buy a home in Santa Monica. I liked them and respected them. But there were limits to what they could do. When they put on Community Workshops to get community input, they knew these workshops were not designed for exploratory thinking.  Instead, they were designed for confirmatory thinking. The community was given options, neither terribly desirable, and asked to choose between them. This same approach was used by those in charge of the Big Blue Bus at their Community Workshop, where they sought community input on how to better integrate bus service with the Expo. But, going to such meetings could be useful. At this meeting, I discovered that the Bergamot Station Village had no turn-around space for busses, which meant that it could not serve as a hub for public transportation around this City. If we wanted a Santa Monica-centric public transportation system connected to the Expo, passing any Hines Project would be the surest way to make sure that never happened.

What we need is an alternative to the present plan 

Understanding the complexity of the situation is an important first step. But the next step has to go beyond that. What we need are some goals that would serve as a focus for exploratory thinking. Having a Santa Monica-centric public transportation system connected to the Expo and providing adequate parking for the Expo that could be accessed from freeway ramps without cars entering our city thoroughfares would be a logical focus. This would bring in revenue from outside our city, just what Rod Gould said we needed when he first arrived. And, as public transportation provided people quick access  to all parts of our city, commerce and culture would thrive. 

The last word 

I asked Kate Bransfield why a real estate agent would support a referendum to stop a major development like the Bergamot Station Village. After all, wouldn’t it increase the value of our real estate? She said she had to take off her real estate hat when looking at this situation. (Did that mean that bankers, developers, city planners, and politicians could take off the hats that narrowed their thinking so much that they could not explore options?) “But,” I asked her, “why did you support this referendum as you have?”  “Because I am a person, first” “What are you second?”  “I am a Santa Monican. I love this city. I’ve been here 25 years. I supported our residents because it was the right thing to do. It's as simple as that.”

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