Santa Monica's 'grand bargain' on growth and housing: A model for other cities?

Like many cities in Southern California, Santa Monica is split between two entrenched camps when it comes to the politics of growth, housing and development. Here’s how Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s city manager — and before that a deputy mayor of Los Angeles, city manager of Ventura and Azusa and mayor of Pasadena — describes the gulf.

On one side, Cole told me over lunch recently, is the slow-growth or even no-growth faction, “a group of people who think until we have more water, until the air is clean, until traffic is solved, we don’t need even one more brick on top of brick.” For them, any new housing “is too much.”

On the other side are the vocal and increasingly organized pro-growth and pro-housing advocates who say that “if Santa Monica is going to be a leader, we should be building much more. Because we’ve got a train, with three stops in Santa Monica, if we’re going to do anything about the housing crisis, this is the time, this is the place, full speed ahead, pedal to the metal.”

The philosophical differences between the two camps have been thrown into sharp relief over the last year or so. A few months after celebrating the extension of the Metro Expo Line to Santa Monica — the train Cole refers to — residents debated and ultimately rejected (by 55% to 45%) a controversial slow-growth ballot initiative, Measure LV. In recent weeks deliberations over a new development blueprint for Santa Monica’s downtown — known as the DCP, for Downtown Community Plan — have been heating up.

But according to Cole, something surprising happened as the DCP wound its way through the approval process, first at the planning commission and then in front of the full city council. Santa Monica, he argues, managed to build a bridge across the yawning growth gap.

The city has fashioned a plan for its downtown — an area bounded by Wilshire Boulevard to the north, the 10 Freeway to the south, Ocean Avenue to the west and Lincoln Boulevard to the east — that promises to speed the approvals process for housing developments smaller than 75,000 square feet, eliminates parking requirements for new construction and boosts the required number of affordable units on the biggest residential projects to 30%, an unusually high number.

Cole believes that it’s a breakthrough that could provide a road map for the rest of California. In his words, what the council achieved in reaching full consensus on the details of the DCP last week is nothing less than “a grand bargain on the key issues.” A formal vote is expected Tuesday evening.

Though the bargain “will not make either side happy,” Cole adds, “it really represents a synthesis.”

“The council made a decision to be all in. All in on a new model of mobility: We’re eliminating parking minimums. All in on the production of housing: We’re going to make it staff approval [without review by the planning commission or other body]. And all in on affordable housing, because we may not be able to get much new middle-class housing, because of factors beyond our control, but by God we’re going to get the maximum amount for the lower end. So three pretty bold moves on the part of the council — and not just 4-3 votes but the fact that they were able to get everybody on board.”

If a real compromise is one that causes at least a little pain on both sides, Cole says this one qualifies. The council members were “not playing to this group or that group. In fact, each of them have something that they’re really pissed off about.”

The plan also allows three large projects already in the planning pipeline — including one designed by Frank Gehry and another by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the firm co-founded by Rem Koolhaas — to exceed current height limits downtown if they're later approved, though not by as much as their developers originally hoped.

Regular readers of this column will recall that I’ve been critical of earlier versions of the DCP, in part because it includes a provision to lower height limits along the northern edge of downtown. I still think it’s a mistake to downzone any part of a city where there’s high demand for housing — especially a city as well-served by transit and as committed in its rhetoric to inclusion and social justice as Santa Monica.

There are other details of the DCP I could find fault with. Some housing advocates worry that pushing up the affordable housing requirement to 30% will give developers an incentive to steer clear of housing altogether in downtown Santa Monica. As Jason Islas, a writer and activist in Santa Monica who described an earlier version of the DCP as “an aggressively slow-growth document,” put it in an email, “30% of zero is zero.”

I’m also skeptical about how accurately the grand bargain reflects constituent feeling in Santa Monica, which is to say how truly balanced it is. You could make a pretty good case — given the results of the LV vote and the public comments in hearings about the DCP, among other admittedly imperfect measuring sticks — that the pro-housing faction has not just a solid but a growing majority. Time and demographics are certainly on its side.

In a larger sense, even a compromise on growth that perfectly calibrates contemporary political feeling in Santa Monica would be lacking because it wouldn’t allow the city to make up for the many decades it spent systematically under-building housing, shutting the door on new arrivals and driving up prices and inequality.

The population of Santa Monica — one of the most desirable places to live on the planet — increased a mere 6,500 people, or less than 8%, between 1960 and 2010. Over the same period Los Angeles County’s population grew by more than 60%. Santa Monica has done a very good job insulating itself from growth while reaping the benefits of economic development across the region as a whole. Particularly in terms of housing it has an obligation to do more, to put the drawbridge back down.

But I’ve given much of this column over to Cole’s analysis of the “grand bargain” because over the years I’ve found him a thoughtful, measured observer of the region. And because in this hyper-polarized moment in both local and national politics, it’s refreshing to hear some reports of cooperation and compromise, even within the narrow range of Democratic politics that defines the Santa Monica City Council.

His argument for moving cautiously in building new housing downtown makes some sense. It would be a mistake, he says, “to tear down a pretty successful downtown overnight and replace it with a slew of brand-new, identical-looking buildings built for a particular time by one or two developers. In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, let’s see if we can allow a little more organic evolution.”

Yet planning of that sort succeeds only if a city’s appetite for new housing is consistent over time. What if later councils slam the door shut again? Then the evolution is not organic but frustratingly piecemeal.

Ultimately the success of the DCP will depend, paradoxically enough, on what happens outside Santa Monica’s downtown core. In 2015 the city council, in a controversial 4-3 vote, essentially downzoned the major boulevards beyond downtown. Such corridors are precisely where cities should be ramping up the production of new housing.

Cole says council members may soon be ready to revisit that decision and its implications. I hope he’s right. If protecting the city’s low- and mid-rise downtown can be accompanied by a good-faith, sustained and successful effort to boost the production of market-rate and affordable housing elsewhere in the city — and that’s a big if — the grand bargain may turn out to be worth it. And may prove to be a model for other cities in the region, not least Los Angeles itself.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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