Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown addresses civic and business leaders at the 2015 State of the City event. The slide accompanies his comments on the "rise of residents" and the increasingly heated debates about the city's future.
Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown addresses civic and business leaders at the 2015 State of the City event. The slide accompanies his comments on the “rise of residents” and the increasingly heated debates about the city’s future.

“Santa Monica has changed since the 1970s…, which many have embraced as exciting, but others resist with consternation,” Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown told the crowd of civic and business leaders gathered in Soka Gakkai International – USA Auditorium.

The crowd had gathered for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City event. This year’s theme was “Game Changers,” highlighting the people who are shaping the landscape of Santa Monica in the first quarter of the 21st century.

“But change is inevitable,” McKeown said. “Santa Monica is well-positioned to thrive as a relatively small but trendsetting world-class beach city.”

Santa Monica has a lot going for it. The coming Expo Light Rail will connect Santa Monica to the region by train for the first time in half a century by early 2016.

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“Exploding growth” in the tech sector, which now accounts for about a quarter of Santa Monica’s workforce, is being driven, in part, by Santa Monica’s municipally-owned broadband network, one of the fastest in the country, McKeown said.

Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2001, he said, “are flocking to Santa Monica,” attracted in part by “our walkability, schools, parks, active Downtown, and multiple transportation options.” A quarter of Santa Monica residents are between the ages of 20 and 35, according to City officials.

But a second theme emerged as McKeown, and later, City Manager Rod Gould, took the stage: in the face of these changes, and the challenges that come with them, Santa Monica needs to get back to facts.

“Back to Facts”

It was refreshing to hear a positive message, both about the City’s future and the heated rhetoric that has pervaded debates about it.

“Last fall, we experienced a particularly fractious and divisive local election,” said McKeown, chosen by his fellow City Council members to succeed Councilmember Pam O’Connor as mayor following his reelection in November.

“Residents of this wonderful and livable city of Santa Monica are concerned that the community they love will be lost. This is encouraged increasingly by non-factual rhetoric,” he said. “I’m committed to getting us back to facts and working toward solutions.”

Gould, who later took the stage to a standing ovation, reiterated McKeown’s point.

“While it is absolutely correct for Santa Monicans to be very concerned about new development in this compact and highly attractive city, as well as demand that government find ways to reduce the number of solo drivers on city streets, it is important that these discussions be fact based and grounded in reality,” said Gould, who is retiring at the end of January. At Tuesday’s event, he was awarded the Chamber’s Individual Community Excellence Award.

Despite much of the rhetoric claiming that Santa Monica has been overdeveloped, Gould said that growth in Santa Monica — both commercial and residential — has been very modest. The city’s population has increased from 83,249 in 1960 to 92,185 in 2014. And there has been only an average of 67,000 square feet of net new non-residential development each year for the past 12 years.

“So, despite minuscule population increases, many view the problem as growth in housing and mixed-used projects which has been particularly evident since the adoption in 2010 of the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE),” he said, referring to Santa Monica’s award-winning planning policy.

“While this type of development is often cited as a community concern, residential and mixed-use activity permitted since the LUCE is much less than in previous years. In the four years since the LUCE adoption, the number of multi-family projects approved and issued building permits is 79% fewer than between 2003 and 2007,” he said. “Further, the number of residential units approved by City Council fell by 55% in the same period.”

Since the LUCE passed, Santa Monica actually seen a decline in the number of rental units taken off the market, Gould said.

“The truth is that far less residential properties have been withdrawn from the rental market since the adoption of the LUCE in 2010 than previously,” he said. “Rent controlled units vacated under the Ellis Act during the four year post-LUCE period were 71% less than between 2003 and 2007.”

And, he added, traffic counts are actually down from their 2007 peak, reflecting a statewide trend.

“None of this is to say that Santa Monica shouldn’t be concerned about development and traffic, but it is to say, as the mayor suggests, that debate should begin with facts and data,” said Gould.

Success Brings Affordability Challenge

Santa Monica’s success, the high level of City services, well-funded public schools, and robust transit options, have led to rising land values and, consequently, higher rents.

“Santa Monica must not become a haven exclusively for the ultra rich,” said McKeown, which it can do by “providing reasonably-priced housing in a region where it’s in extremely short supply.”

“We need to recommit ourselves to the voter-approved goal that’s in our City Charter that 30 percent of the housing built in town be truly affordable,” he said. “And securing a dedicated funding source or sources to achieve that outcome.”

And, he said, it’s important that new construction not replace existing affordable housing, calling for the community to be vigilant.

A Bright outlook

“Santa Monica is thriving,” Gould said. “Santa Monica is embracing the new century and setting itself up for success in the decades ahead.”

He outlined the many investments the City is making in parks, public works projects, bike infrastructure, and better sidewalks, as well as in the people who live here.

“Santa Monica is making large investments in its human capital, as well, through extraordinary revenue sharing with schools,” Gould said. The City also funds and coordinates the Cradle to Career and Youth Resources Team initiatives to “ensure the success of all young people in town,” he said. Expanded senior services, in partnership with Wise and Healthy Aging, serve the Santa Monica’s aging population. And, Santa Monica provides “leading edge services for homeless people through the proven ‘Housing First’ model,” Gould said.

“Santa Monica enjoys balanced budgets, clean audits, increased reserves, labor peace,” he said. Santa Monica is “paying down pension and healthcare liabilities and it [has a] AAA bond rating. High quality schools and a premiere community college benefit the community in a multitude of ways.”

All of that is possible because of the city’s thriving local economy.

“Our local businesses generate 65 percent of the General Fund budget,” McKeown said, which helps the City pay for an “exceptionally high level of traditional municipal services,” he said.

Because of the city’s healthy tax base, McKeown said, Santa Monica can also afford to go further and provide services that other municipalities can’t afford to, like a top-rated library system, early-child education programs, affordable housing, and abundant arts and culture programs, to name a few.

“Local business is critical to safety, quality of life, and sustainability,” McKeown said.