Following community outcry and a successful referendum campaign, the Santa Monica City Council has rescinded a controversial development agreement for one of the city's largest projects.
The Bergamot Transit Village — a 765,000-square-foot office, residential and retail development near a coming Expo Line rail stop — was narrowly approved in February after years of debate. But when council members were forced to decide Tuesday between putting the project's fate on the ballot or repealing the development agreement, they voted 4 to1 to kill the plan. Two council members abstained.
"The only way to negotiate effectively for the best possible developments for our community is to sometimes be willing to say no," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, who voted to ax the agreement. "With the successful referendum drive, Santa Monica residents forced the council majority to say no."
The victory for slow-growth advocates comes as the city has found itself in the midst of a growth spurt. As of late last year, officials said more than 30 projects in the pipeline could add nearly 3 million square feet in new residential, office and retail space.
The Hines 26th Street project was slated to fill an old Paper Mate pen factory near the Bergamot Station Arts Center. It was the largest development in a list of recent projects compiled by the city in November. McKeown said he could not think of a bigger project in the city's recent history.
Proponents said it would add necessary housing next to transit and presented a better option than leaving the space vacant or allowing the land owners to eventually reoccupy the abandoned site.
Critics, however, decried the 7,000 new daily car trips the project was expected to generate, and maintained that the development included too much office and commercial space with too little affordable housing.
"This is a no-confidence vote on the city's decisions," said Diana Gordon, who co-chairs Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, a slow-growth advocacy group. "In the future, residents are going to be at the table."
A Hines representative Wednesday said the property owners had no comment on the council vote.
At the City Council meeting and in statements after the vote, elected officials condemned the divisions the project has generated within the community.
Former Mayor and now Assemblyman Richard Hershel Bloom (D-Santa Monica) weighed in Wednesday, saying that "fear-mongering, misinformation and even bullying around development issues in Santa Monica are reflected in the decision to kill this project and have left our city with a black eye."
Councilwoman Gleam Davis — the lone official to change her vote — said she feared that putting the development agreement on the ballot would invite "bloodletting."
And Councilman Bob Holbrook, who abstained from the vote, characterized the rhetoric about the project as "extremely nasty" and argued that some change was inevitable.
"The vast majority of activists want zero" growth, Holbrook said. "They don't want another car, they don't want another person in Santa Monica."
Neighborhood groups and activist organizations united with unusual quickness and force to fight the Hines project.
Former City Council candidate Armen Melkonians created an online platform called Residocracy.org and used the website to help sign up volunteer signature gatherers for the referendum campaign. Santa Monica for Renters' Rights, the city's only major political party, and Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City came out in support of the referendum.
Collectively, campaign organizers managed to gather enough signatures to qualify a referendum on the project. City officials said more than 13,500 signatures were collected, though the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office stopped counting once it had verified 6,800.