Southern California NIMBYs

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Approval to build something like this soon could take a citywide vote.

Santa Monica is a pleasant city of 90,000 residents, plus an uncounted number of homeless people.

As regular readers know, I am fond of the place. I lived there some years ago and now have a condo there, where I spend part of each year.

Santa Monica’s planners have done some impressive things in the years since I first took up residence.

–They opened up a formerly enclosed mall and matched it with an underused walking street called the Promenade, which now attracts locals and visitors from all over the world for shopping, dining and films.

–They bought a 15-acre downtown parcel from Rand Corp., developed nine acres with a blend of condos and affordable housing and turned the rest into a popular new park.

–They participated in the construction of a light-rail line that runs from downtown Los Angeles to a stop in the middle of the city and a terminus at the Santa Monica pier, allowing local residents to visit downtown, and even commute to work there, without having to get into their cars.

–They encouraged the development of three- and four-story apartment and condominium complexes near major arteries and the light-rail stops.

Light rail and greater housing density are in keeping with a broader Los Angeles initiative to build downtown high-rises and more tall buildings along major traffic corridors like Wilshire Blvd. The effort addresses the decades-old critiques of the city — that it is too spread out and that its residents are too dependent on cars for their basic transportation needs.

Change is difficult for people, of course, and it always encounters resistance. And, because it is California, there is an initiative on Tuesday’s ballot to head off change in Santa Monica.

Measure LV

You’ve heard about California’s initiative process. It allows interested groups to collect signatures and put their ideas up for public votes on city, county or state ballots. (A friend who lives in Northern California told me last week that she had spent hours studying various ballot measures in order to cast an informed vote next Tuesday.)

The relevant issue in Santa Monica next week is new construction.

At the moment, most city buildings are residential and no taller than 36 feet, or two stories. Getting permission for anything taller, even in commercial areas where zoning allows for such, already requires serious zoning commission and city council reviews.

But the new initiative, Measure LV, would go much further.

This idea behind the measure is to “empower” local residents in the planning process. If passed, any development of more than two stories — commercial, residential, public — would require a public vote to move forward.

–If a developer wanted to put up a three-story apartment building behind a three-story office building, that would require a public vote.

–If the local community college, which has grown larger over the years, wanted to add a three-story classroom building, that would have to be approved by city voters.

–If an earthquake undermined the older buildings downtown and they needed replacement, there would be dozens of decisions referred for public approval.

Everyone from the League of Women Voters to the newspapers to the local fire department has come out against LV. Even the Sierra Club has challenged its premise that it will limit traffic increases.

It is pretty easy to see what will happen if this measure is passed. Real estate developers wanting to build in the city will have to factor in extra time, maybe a year or more, and extra costs to lobby the citizenry for any new construction. Unless they can generate enough extra revenue to cover those expenses, they will decline to build.

The measure’s sponsors already have convinced the city to move slow on new housing development by removing the housing portion of the multi-use conversion of an abandoned business and by limiting the height of apartment and condo developments along the light rail line.

(There’s an amusing exception to the Measure LV requirement — it would not apply to construction of 100 percent affordable housing projects. No one in his or her right mind would site all-affordable housing projects in a place with land as expensive as that in Santa Monica; there still are areas, including several not many miles away, where land is much cheaper. Bang for the buck, and all that.)

This year, the average cost of a two-bedroom rental in Santa Monica is more than $5,000 a month. But the median cost is $6,500, which suggests many of the less expensive apartments are still occupied by people who first rented in the 1970s, when the city’s rent-control law was enacted. (It was modified years ago to allow vacancy decontrol, but some of the original tenants are still in place.) Everything new is much more expensive, and the limits on further construction would only increase rents further.

The city of Santa Monic proclaims its commitment to diversity and frets over how many of its renters (70 percent of the population) are “burdened” with rents that amount to more than 30 percent of their income.

If the town’s voters approve LV, the situation only will get worse.

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