Last night, Los Angeles voters soundly beat Measure S, a poorly-conceived and draconian attempt to control the city’s planning process at the ballot box. The defeat of Measure S comes only a few months after Santa Monica decisively rejected a similarly regressive measure, Measure LV.

The defeat of these measures is not definitive proof of a new urbanist wave of voters. These results, however, do shine a light on the massive flaws in ballot box planning. They show the difficulties in simplifying the complex task of designing the future of cities down into a one-size-fits-all up-or-down vote.

To call last night simply a defeat is an understatement. Measure S lost after it barely managed to get only 31 percent of the vote despite (or, maybe because) its supporters running one of the most deceptive campaigns in recent L.A. history.

Today, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Los Angeles voters have now sent a message about what kind of city they want: more housing, more affordable, more public transit.”

It was a definitive rout of a measure that would have severely hampered new housing — both affordable and market-rate — growth, since the measure would have put a two-year moratorium on zoning changes or General Plan amendments. Due to the city’s antiquated zoning, these amendments are what allows the city to permit new housing to replace outmoded uses like empty parking lots or industrial spaces.

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As our regional housing shortage continues to grow and rents continue to skyrocket, anti-growth measures like S and LV would have undermined efforts to keep our region affordable and to prevent displacement of low- and middle-income people.

In short, Measure S was anti-change and anti-transit (the same people who backed Measure S also mounted the only formal opposition to Measure M in November).

Measure LV, which went before Santa Monica voters in November, similarly sought to put the brakes on growth and change by requiring nearly all projects taller than 32 feet to be approved by a vote of the people before moving forward. Measure LV was also decisively rejected by voters, losing by nearly 11 percent points.

Not even a full month after Measure LV was defeated, however, some on the Santa Monica City Council began calling for another, less severe version of the measure to go before voters next election year.

At what point do we look at the results from these elections as an indication that while we may not all agree on the direction our region is going in, more people than not agree that going to the ballot box to plan our cities’ futures isn’t the way forward?

One of the main points of living in a city is that it is full of diversity. This inevitably means a diversity of opinions about how to plan for the future. The real work of planning is taking that diversity and creating a coherent future out of it.

However, measures like S and LV are attempts by a vocal minority of people to foist narrow visions of the future on diverse communities by exploiting real frustrations and fears. But that these visions of our future truly do belong to a minority of people is a truth that was born out in two separate elections less than six months apart.

So, how do we go forward? One option is to make these sorts of measures harder to pass. California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) wants measures designed to block growth to need to get two-thirds of the vote instead of just a simply majority in order to pass.

Already, in L.A., there is talk about steps needed to address the underlying problems that the pro-S people exploited to sell their measure: skyrocketing rents, an arcane and archaic planning system, and growing inequality. Notably, unlike in Santa Monica, no one seems to be talking about the need for another, less severe version of Measure S.

In Santa Monica, the pro-LV people exploited, more than any other single issue, frustration over traffic. So why are leaders discussing another ballot measure instead of real solutions to the underlying frustrations that were exploited by supporters of LV?

One thing is clear from Tuesday’s election results: voters have once again rejected the myth that the problems of urban planning can be solved with a simple yes-or-no vote at the ballot box. How many more times do we have to say no to an idea before we can stop posing the question?

  • Kevin McKeown

    Responsible and responsive leaders are perfectly able to integrate opinions from both sides of contentious issues, even those from polarized absolutists who confuse winning a battle with ending a war. Likewise, we are capable of BOTH working on real traffic solutions AND acknowledging the real concerns of voters who feel overwhelmed by a growth machine with no brake pedal.

    Measure S in L.A. lost for the same reason I opposed Measure LV here: It was too extreme. Both would have frozen needed housing production, to which I have long been committed. The losses of S and LV don’t mean that planning approval reforms aren’t needed, though, or that unconstrained commercial development should be allowed. The losses just mean that two flawed ballot measures failed, deservedly so.

    For full disclosure to your readers, I am one of those on the Santa Monica City Council interested in modifying the public process on some extremely large development proposals. We’re currently exploring what might work best for our relatively small community. It might be as simple as requiring a supermajority of the Council to approve anything beyond the adopted zoning code, or it might mean ratification by residents. This means I’m even willing to risk large projects I personally believe in, if their impacts are such that everyone affected by them deserves a voice in the decision.

    The placing of individual development proposals on the ballot should be exceedingly rare — in fact, may never need to happen — if we work from one sensible principle: Let’s evaluate cumulative needs and impacts, let’s engage everyone to agree on a plan for our community, and then let’s stick to that plan.

    Kevin McKeown
    Councilmember
    Santa Monica

  • JustJake

    Disagree. This is Democracy in action. Attempts to deny this voice of citizens, as opposed to what the legislative stew produces, should fail. Ballot box is the last vestige of citizen input.