City Hall

A proposal by Santa Monica City Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Tony Vazquez to put an anti-height ballot measure before voters in November fell flat early Wednesday morning after McKeown was unable to get another council member to second his motion.

The proposed ballot measure, if it had made it on the ballot and been approved in November, would have required a popular vote on any project taller than established height limits on Ocean Avenue, currently 45 feet.

Over the course of discussion, McKeown adjusted the motion to set the height threshold that would trigger the popular vote requirement at 84 feet, but it was still not enough to get a second, even from Vazquez, who co-sponsored the item to be on Tuesday’s agenda.

With much of Santa Monica’s anti-development activists focused on three major hotel projects, including one designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, pending along the stretch of Ocean Avenue from the I-10 freeway to California Avenue, McKeown said he believed the measure would ease tensions as the City adopts a new zoning code.

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“I don’t think we can do our best work… on the zoning code in this climate,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t believe any project above code size is going to get by without a referendum anyway… We might as well admit to a direct vote going in.”

While McKeown, who is running for reelection this year, insisted that the ballot initiative would not prohibit development along Ocean Avenue, it would clearly discourage it.

McKeown noted that under his proposal developers would first have to go through the lengthy – and expensive – development agreement negotiation process with the City, then they would have to mount a costly political campaign to get voter approval.

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“We have a vision for Santa Monica in which planning policy, development, and associated community benefits are also part of a democratic process, but we value the Council’s role in dictating this policy and negotiating these benefits and we don’t want to see it diminished.” – Melanie Luthern, UNITE HERE
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The motion, however, failed to gain traction with any of the other council members and faced opposition from the regional hospitality workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 11.

“Everyone has a vision for Santa Monica. Everyone’s vision is different,” Melanie Luthern with UNITE HERE told the council Tuesday. “We have a vision for Santa Monica in which planning policy, development, and associated community benefits are also part of a democratic process, but we value the Council’s role in dictating this policy and negotiating these benefits and we don’t want to see it diminished.”

Councilmember Ted Winterer expressed concerns that even if a developer wanted to build a 50-foot entirely residential project along Ocean Avenue, under McKeown’s proposed restrictions, that developer would be discouraged from going forward with the project.

A handful of anti-development activists came out to speak in favor.

One speaker said the initiative didn’t go far enough. “This initiative is a teeny, tiny band-aid on a disease that is spreading through our city,” she said.

Another speaker called for the initiative to limit heights on construction as far back as 4th Street.

McKeown first floated the idea of requiring popular votes on individual projects along Ocean Avenue at the Council’s June 10 meeting.

At that meeting, McKeown, much to the chagrin of the anti-development activists in the crowd, joined his colleagues in unanimous support for developer John Warfel to use a 148-foot design as a starting point for his Plaza at Santa Monica, slated to be built on City-owned land at between 4th and 5th streets south of Arizona Avenue in Downtown Santa Monica.

The Council argued that while the final project could be a few stories shorter, the taller starting point gives the design team more flexibility.

Things got a little heated on the dais when McKeown’s motion didn’t get the support he expected. McKeown quipped, “how collegial” after pointing out that Winterer did not support the motion after McKeown had adjusted the proposed height threshold.

“Don’t jab at me for not being collegial,” Winterer retorted, explaining that he simply had asked for clarification.

“I simply wanted some clarity on your intent,” Winterer said. “It was not intended to be collegial or otherwise. I have reservations about your intent here and the influx of an enormous amount of money into the city for this ballot measure, which would skew the results of other important ballot measures.”

The Council is currently considering sponsoring two ballot measures in November: one that would counter a measure sponsored by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association to keep the airport open and another that would create a permanent, local revenue source for affordable housing production.