Santa Monica could pass highly restrictive growth limits. Is L.A. next?

Santa Monica has long been viewed as Los Angeles’ innovative neighbor. For decades, the upscale seaside city has been an early adopter of such landmark policies as rent control, bike sharing and a variety of environmental protections.

This election appears to be no exception, with Santa Monica taking on a hot-button issue Los Angeles and many other cities are grappling with: urban growth.

Voters next week will consider one of the strictest slow-growth measures around, requiring elections for most development projects taller than 32 to 36 feet — a low bar covering many new apartment and condo developments as well as office and retail projects.

Measure LV comes as Santa Monica sees a boom in new projects, with developers seeking to take advantage of the new Expo Line and the city’s bustling downtown area. Urban planners are increasingly favoring this kind of multi-use development to foster walkable neighborhoods and encourage residents to ride bikes or take mass transit rather than drive. 

But in Santa Monica and elsewhere, the push has created a backlash.

Backers of the measure fear the influx of luxury developments could eventually price out Santa Monica’s renters, who make up 70% of the city’s 93,000 residents. They argue that the planning process at City Hall is rigged to favor deep-pocketed developers who promise a meager number of affordable housing units in order to build expensive mega-developments. The law would grant exemptions from public votes for some affordable-housing and moderate-income and senior-housing projects.

“The market reaction to the push for housing has been luxury housing,” said Armen Melkonians, an environmental engineer who led the effort to gather the signatures needed to place Measure LV on the ballot. “Business interests took over.”

Santa Monica offers a preview of a much larger debate brewing in Los Angeles, where voters in March will consider growth limits.

It’s an issue on which both sides claim the progressive high ground: Slow-growth (and no-growth) forces stress the values of preservation and the need to protect residents from rapid gentrification. Pro-growth groups argue more development is needed to address the region’s soaring rents and shortage of housing units.

“I have always been a slow-growth advocate and remain one,” said Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who opposes Measure LV. “It sets an inflexible height limit ... that is simply too extreme and creates a long list of unintended consequences, including an inability to keep up with housing demand.”

Many U.S. cities are battling increasing density amid the housing crunch, but Santa Monica’s proposed solution is particularly restrictive, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“Something like this would be so onerous. It would be extremely difficult to provide more affordable housing, even for housing for the middle class or millennials who can’t afford single family homes,” she said. “No one is saying put a high-rise next to a home. Protect the neighborhood, but it’s good planning to identify areas that can afford density.”

Santa Monica is no stranger to slow-growth politics.

The city has become a magnet for the entertainment industry and for tech companies that make up Silicon Beach over the last 20 years. The boom brought more jobs into Santa Monica, along with more traffic.

For all Santa Monica has changed, the skyline has remained largely the same: a few aging towers overlooking the city's coastal bluffs. But the city now has 25 proposed mixed-use housing projects and three pending hotel projects that, if built, would alter the cityscape.

The LV initiative in a sense is an extension of a contentious development battle that began in 2014.

The city had approved a 765,000-square-foot residential, office and retail development near the Expo Line, a huge project by Santa Monica standards. Officials hoped that those apartments, part of a larger effort by the city to build denser development along the rail line, would attract residents who would use public transit instead of driving.

In response, activists gathered signatures and secured a public vote on the development, prompting the council to kill the plan. 

Many supporters of the growth restrictions fear that more upscale development could threaten the protections renters in Santa Monica now enjoy.

Rent control laws offer strong protections for renters where they currently live. But anti-growth forces cite the Ellis Act, a 1985 state law that allows landlords to evict tenants if they intend to either take the housing off the rental market or demolish the building to put up new apartments.

It is unclear how often the Ellis Act is used to evict renters in Santa Monica. A Times analysis showed an increase in such evictions in Los Angeles earlier this year.

“A lot of my concern is about the development and its impact on our small city,” said Tricia Crane, a member of the group Residocracy, which is leading the campaign for LV. “There’s a disturbing lack of transparency in our government and a tremendous amount of power held by developers.”  

Adrian Crook, a retired Santa Monica firefighter, said the measure would give residents greater say in how Santa Monica continues to grow “because you can no longer trust the development companies to make that decision on your behalf.”  

“The bigger picture here isn’t having to do with development, but the development companies and local politicians,” he said.

Critics of the ballot measure say it could grind development to a halt, hurting the local economy. They argue that some new housing is necessary and could reduce prices.

“If you look at other cities where such things have happened, development has been dampened because people don't want to take the time to go to the ballot,” said Barbara Inatsugu, president of the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica. “It could depress our economy.”

In a sign of the high stakes of the election, opponents raised more than $1 million, much of it from real estate and development industries, according to campaign finance records.

If passed, the measure would become law for 20 years. No provision of the initiative could be amended or repealed, except by a majority of the voters in a special or general election.

Nat Trives, a former mayor of Santa Monica, said residents should trust City Council members to do their job — and vote them out of office if they don’t.  

“It’s probably well-intended by the proponents, but the unintended consequence would be the city comes to a gridlock,” Trives said.

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

For more California news follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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