Building to a Halt
By Melody Hanatani

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CITY HALL – Concerned with the growing density of the city over the past few decades, an advocacy group comprised of local residents is seeking to place a measure on the ballot that would limit the rate of commercial development.

The Santa Monica Coalition for Livable Cities (SMCLC) plans to file an application next week to the City Clerk’s Office to begin the process of gathering the necessary signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot, an election sure to draw scores of residents considering that it coincides with the presidential election.

The proposed measure has some city officials concerned that it could have a negative impact on current efforts to update the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), a document that will guide developmental in the city for the next 20 years or more.

“The way you really have long-term participation of the community and the way that people in the community build consensus is through a process that involves everyone and out of that process, you come to an agreement ... a consensus and a vision for the future,” said Planning and Community Development Director Eileen Fogarty, referring to the numerous community workshops on LUCE that have taken place over the past year. “A single issue on the ballot is not the way to bring all the different constituencies together and assign a future where there is a shared vision.”

The coalition seeks to limit all new commercial development in the city to less than 75,000 total square feet a year, which is about the size of two supermarkets. The initiative would allow the development approvals to exceed the maximum so long as the average annual square footage over the following four years would be below 75,000 square feet, according to Diana Gordon, an attorney and member of the coalition.

“This is a clear reminder of who’s really in charge of local government, the voters,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “The initiative acknowledges that our congestion woes are worsened primarily by office and retail, not housing, and if residents want to cap commercial growth at a more sustainable level, we should listen.”

The proposed measure would not affect renovations, residential developments or remodelings, leaving future projects like the facilities improvement in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica Place untouched.

The impetus for the initiative can be attributed to the fact that after City Hall adopted the 1984 General Plan, the projections for new commercial growth had been exceeded by 1990, Gordon said.

“By 1990, (City Hall) had already approved 5.7 million square feet in new commercial development and after that, it continued to approve new commercial development at an accelerating rate,” she said. “We believe if the city is not forced to pace development, it will not put any reasonable limits on new commercial growth in the future.”

“It will have the same problem in the next 20 years as in the last 20 years,” Gordon said, adding that new commercial projects generate about three to four times as much traffic as their residential counterparts.

Also taken into account in formulating the initiative is the fact that the City Council had ignored a development moratorium request last year by the neighborhood groups and SMCLC, a request made because of the amount of time it was taking to update the 1984 General Plan, Gordon said.

“We didn’t think projects should continued to be approved based on old development standards that wouldn’t be in effect (once LUCE was updated),” Gordon said. “We asked (the council) to place a moratorium on at least the industrial land area, which is the largest undeveloped area of the city.”

Gordon stressed that the initiative should have no effect on the updated General Plan.

“Nothing in this would likely change any outcome,” Gordon said. “What this does is something the city has never done before — it sets a mechanism for pacing development so that only a certain amount of development can be approved in a given year.”

City officials said such an initiative would curb the public process that has been going on through the past year through the LUCE meetings, which have attracted hundreds of residents, voicing their concerns of the lack of parking, volume of traffic and need for smarter development management.

The appropriate way to determine the developmental future of the city is through the various community workshops that have taken place with the LUCE update process, not around the ballot box, City Manager Lamont Ewell said on Thursday, a day after meeting with Gordon about the proposed initiative.

“I hope this community will continue to rally around LUCE, let their voices be heard as to what makes sense for our community over the next 20 years,” he said.

Ewell added that while he understands the coalition’s concerns, such an initiative — meant to reduce traffic in the city — could have unintended consequences.

The initiative is also sure to spark litigation by property owners if passed, said Councilmember Bob Holbrook, who added that the process in changing the language of a law put into effect by an initiative is a much more lengthy and cumbersome one than changing an ordinance.

The measure could also have an impact on the economic vitality of the city, Holbrook added.

“I want to make sure our vitality remains in place,” he said.