Residents Delivering Signatures to City Hall. Courtesy of Ken Robin.
Residents Delivering Signatures to City Hall. Courtesy of Ken Robin.

Opponents to development in Santa Monica, and the Bergamot Transit Village mixed-use project in particular, have made their voices heard this week. On Monday, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) filed a lawsuit against the city that it did not study enough project alternatives in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). On Tuesday, Residocracy.org, the group who launched the referendum petition, announced that it gathered over 13,000 signatures, twice what is necessary to get the issue on the ballot in November.

Opponents had 30 days from when the City Council narrowly approved the Bergamot development on February 11 with its 4-3 vote to gather 10 percent of the voters in Santa Monica. They came back with 13,440 signatures, which they delivered to City Hall Tuesday morning. Now, the signatures are counted to make sure there are 6,500 valid signatures. Assuming there are enough, the City Council is required to reconsider the project—either reject it themselves or place it on the ballot in November or at a special election for the citizens to decide.

“This is direct democracy in action,” said Armen Melkonian, founder of Residocracy.org, and leader of the petition drive, in a message on his website. “This is the unified voice of Santa Monica residents speaking loudly and clearly. This is the power of Residocracy and our Hammer of Strength.”

The Bergamot Transit Village, located at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street, has been in the works for seven years. It is the cornerstone project to realize the visions outlined in the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), approved in 2010, and the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP), approved in 2013. Both documents envisioned creating an active and thriving development in this area that would complement the adjacent future Bergamot Expo Line Station. The project is 765,095 square feet of 45 percent residential space and 55 percent creative office space. It will include five primary buildings of between five and seven stories each with community-serving retail and restaurants, livable streets, parks, and three centers of community activity between the buildings, as well as a subterranean parking garage with nearly 2,000 spaces.

1681 26th St Papermate Rendering
Rendering of Bergamot Transit Village

Opponents at city council meetings cited too much office space, not enough affordable housing as reasons for their opposition, but the primary reason, it seems, that the development stirred so much opposition among residents was its potential to create car trips and more traffic.

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Residocracy says plain and simple, “This project will add approximately 7,000 new daily car trips to our already congested streets. This project will severely impact many already congested intersections and will impact the quality of life for Santa Monica Residents.” Neighborhood Councils and several community-based organizations that oppose to the project echoed Residocracy.org’s sentiments. Approximately 350 Residocracy volunteers urged residents to sign petitions with the tag line, “Are you tired of traffic?”

SMCLC summed it up in a call to action on its website in January, “This development will be one of the largest in Santa Monica’s history, and is located in the most congested part of our city … Make no mistake: a development this big, in this part of the city, would be a disaster for residents, impacting traffic not just in that area, but for miles around.”

The project EIR cites several numbers for added car trips for different project alternatives and different timelines according to its modeling, including the 7,000 additional car trips number. The development agreement also includes what the developer and councilmembers call an “aggressive” transit demand management (TDM) protocol designed to mitigate those trips. One such effort is significant financial penalties for trips that exceed the evening trip cap in the EIR to support of the city’s long-term goal of no net new evening peak trips by 2030.

“With the most aggressive TDM program in Santa Monica’s history, the developers of Bergamot Transit Village have committed to work with the tenants and the surrounding community to reduce the vehicular transportation impacts of this project,” says Jeremy Stutes, Santa Monica resident and chair of railLA. “They’ve taken extraordinary measures to guarantee that these efforts are successful. If they do not find ways to effectively manage traffic, the developers will be the ones paying the bill.”

Councilmember Gleam Davis and Mayor Protempore Terry O’Day see the increased traffic issue a little differently. In a recent column in the Santa Monica Daily Press they contend that if the development agreement is blocked, Hines could decide to revamp the office space currently on the property, which would worsen traffic without providing any community benefits. Benefits, they say, like breaking up the “superblock” with streets and sidewalks, providing safe access to the new train station, housing, parks, and open space.

“Overturning the City Council decision would send a clear message to Hines — reoccupy and expand the existing building,” Davis and O’Day write. “We fully support our community democratically weighing in on this significant change to our east side, as we have over eight years of community meetings, studies, and commission and council deliberation. A successful referendum, however, would unwind the negotiated benefits and bring us more traffic.”

Mayor Pam O’Connor also voted for the project, along with Councilmember Robert Holbrook. Councilmembers Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer, and Tony Vasquez all voted against the project, citing traffic concerns and office-residential ratio.

I voted against the Hines project because I thought the design was not good enough for such a prominent site; the affordable housing proposed did not meet the goals of the Bergamot Area Plan; the phasing in the DA  allowed only one large commercial building to be constructed without requiring any housing production; and the project’s emphasis on commercial square footage over residential failed to address the housing needs of workers in adjacent office buildings and thereby mitigate commuter traffic,” Winterer said. “So I’m naturally pleased that over 13,000 registered Santa Monica voters share my concerns.”

Development opponents also have the SMCLC lawsuit going for them. According to the press release, “The City’s EIR did not properly study reasonable project alternatives so that the Council could consider a superior project with fewer environmental impacts. The project as designed also violates the Bergamot Area Plan, as well as the LUCE, in numerous respects.” The attorney representing SMCLC is Beverly Palmer of Strumwasser & Woocher. She recently won a lawsuit overturning the City of Los Angeles’ approval of the Hollywood Community Plan on grounds similar to those raised in this case.

Courtesy of City of Santa Monica: 2014 Development Survey. Godbe Research.
Courtesy of City of Santa Monica: 2014 Development Survey. Godbe Research.

The city just released the results of a survey it conducted on 500 residents earlier this year. Interestingly, 49.7 percent of respondents “strongly support” projects that facilitate implementation of the Bergamot Area Plan. Another 24.5 percent said they “somewhat support.” Most people cited concern for increased traffic and competition for parking as their primary fears for new development in general.

While most residents felt the city is “going in the right direction,” the age breakdown shows that support for the city’s direction is high among young residents (above 50 percent) ages 18-44, and falters among older residents. Over 50 percent of residents ages 45 to 54, 60 to 64, and 65+ feel the city is “going in the wrong direction.”