Townhall
A resident addresses the Planning Commission during the nearly fve-hour-long Town Hall on the proposed Zoning Ordinance Update.

If you have been to a public meeting in Santa Monica recently, you know that they sometimes get downright ugly. But, even by normal Santa Monica standards, the Planning Commission’s Town Hall meeting on November 19 was bad.

The Planning Commission dispensed with the usual standards of decorum — including time limits on speakers — for the Town Hall meeting in order to promote a more casual atmosphere. The result, however, was something resembling a scene from a Parks and Recreation episode, one that was nearly five hours long and absent of any (intentional) jokes.

The November 19 meeting was one of several in the ongoing process of updating Santa Monica’s outdated Zoning Ordinance, last updated in 1988. The updated Zoning Ordinance is the document that will enact the vision outlined in the city’s award-winning Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and affect the way the city evolves — or doesn’t — to meet regional needs in the next two decades.

Scare Tactics

Conservative no-growth activists, in a coordinated effort, stacked the November 19 meeting to fight against changes proposed in the Zoning Ordinance Update. Particularly targeted were ones that would allow for modest mixed-use housing production along major transit corridors, including Wilshire Boulevard, which is currently dominated by mostly one-to-two story commercial buildings.

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Speakers employed scare tactics and Tea Party-like anti-expert rhetoric (which is becoming a common tactic among no-growthers throughout the country), claiming that City Planners want to bury Wilshire with “towering” development and “huge density,” despite the fact that the proposed height limits in the original Zoning Ordinance Update would still keep most new buildings on Wilshire around three or four stories.

One speaker complained about the increase in vehicle traffic — claiming new housing was to blame — while calling for wider roads and free parking anywhere in the city for anyone who lives in Santa Monica.

Another speaker complained about the “hundreds” of new apartments being built each year, decrying the “chaos on the streets” that made Santa Monica “just not fun for people who live here anymore.”

Of course, the actual amount of new housing that has been very modest. It’s worth noting that the population in Santa Monica has only increased by 1.9 percent from 1980 to 2010. In the past 10 years, an average of about 230 units a year have been built in Santa Monica.

The slow rate of growth has exacerbated Santa Monica’s housing affordability crisis, which is one reason why the LUCE calls for housing to be built along transit corridors.

Armen Melkonians, a former Council candidate, spoke on behalf of Residocracy, a conservative anti-housing group he co-founded based in Santa Monica. His group was the only local organization to oppose Measure H, the affordable housing funding initiative that was defeated in November due, in part, to record low voter turn out.

Melkonians, who moved to Santa Monica around the time the LUCE was adopted unanimously by the City Council in 2010, threatened to “pull a referendum” against the LUCE if the City didn’t scrap the current EIR and “start from scratch,” despite the fact that a referendum against an ordinance can only be called 30 days after that ordinance is approved.

Other speakers repeated a popular talking point among anti-housing advocates: we can’t build more housing because of the drought. Of course, the drought hasn’t slowed down population growth in Los Angeles County, most of which comes from more people being born here than are dying.

“The U.S. population will continue to grow. How that growth is accommodated will affect the quantity of water needed and its cost,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) publication, “Growing Toward More Efficient Water Use:
Linking Development, Infrastructure, and Drinking Water Policies.”

One strategy, the EPA says, is to encourage denser, multi-family housing.

“More compact development allows for shorter transmission systems, making them more efficient to operate and less susceptible to water loss through leakage,” the EPA says, “Encouraging compact neighborhood design on smaller lots reduces water demand for landscaping.”

And, since Santa Monica demands a high environmental standard for new construction, new housing built here tends to be much more water efficient than in other parts of the county.

Less Housing Means More Traffic

While the majority of speakers stuck to the talking points, there were a few who spoke out in favor of the LUCE’s vision of sustainable growth and economic vitality and a Zoning Ordinance that would make that happen.

Jeremy Stutes, a young resident of the Pico Neighborhood, pointed out that Santa Monica’s lack of housing that contributed to traffic. Downzoning would “prevent the creation of affordable housing,” he said, and make it even harder for the thousands of people who commute to the bayside city daily to find housing in the city.

Stutes pointed out that when the environmental impacts of the LUCE were studied in a State-mandated Environmental Impact Review (EIR), it took into account higher density and height limits along major boulevards, adding that if those were downzoned, a new, lengthy EIR would have to be undertaken.

Downzoning, he said, would mean less housing and generate more traffic, decrease air quality, and increased pressure in neighborhoods — in and around Santa Monica — that aren’t near transit. Wilshire is a particularly active transit corridor, since it is the route taken by Metro’s busiest bus, the 720, the 20, and the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus Line 2.

“Please protect the original vision of the LUCE and the vision of a bold, transit-oriented city with more housing,” he said.

And local peace activist and long-time resident, Jerry Rubin, responding to the “development is bad” mantra — one speaker unironically used the phrase “evil developer” — espoused by many in the crowd, said, “A lot of development in this city benefits kids, people with disabilities, the homeless.”

Carl Hansen, another young Santa Monica resident and director of Government Affairs at the Chamber of Commerce, called out the anti-growth people for supporting sprawl.

A native of Encinitas, Hansen made the point that when already developed areas don’t make room for new, smart growth, it forces people to seek housing in sprawling suburbs that eat up undeveloped natural habitats.

An Ongoing Process

The November 19 meeting was just one in several opportunities for community input, staff said. On December 3, there was another meeting, again stacked by many of the same conservative no-growth activists repeating much of the same talking points from the November 19 meeting.

Staff wants to hear from everyone, however, and it’s easy to submit written comments. All you need to do is click here. You can also write to your Planning Commissioners and City Council members to tell them what you support for Santa Monica’s future.