More than in any other year of the city’s recent history, the question of how to control the growth of Santa Monica is dominating a crucial and hotly contested City Council race.
Thirteen people, including two incumbents, are running for four seats on the 7-member City Council, an at-large election that is sure to mark a shift in power at City Hall.
In varying degrees, all the candidates say they support slowing down the recent pace of development. Some indicate they would cut back more drastically than others.
Many candidates, seeing a recent upsurge in sprawling office complexes, luxury hotels and other development projects, are vowing to find new ways to improve the quality of life in the city by tackling the typical yet urgent Southern California problems of traffic, sewage and pollution.
Most candidates call for the preservation of neighborhoods, for maintaining Santa Monica as a “livable” city and for guarding against upscale commercialization.
They point out that the city has already approved the amount of new construction that had been forecast for the year 2000.
Rent control, as always, is also an issue in a city known for its strictly imposed ceilings on rent increases and evictions.
Some candidates are suggesting that the City Council will be the new venue for battles over tenants’ rights, after recent court losses by the city’s Rent Control Board. Others are urging an end to the adversarial relationship between landlords and tenants and proposing new incentives for landlords.
Crime and Homeless
Other problems, too, have been the fodder of community forums for the candidates, including pollution of Santa Monica bay, crime and the homeless.
And much debate involves whether the general spirit of consensus-building that has characterized the council over the last two years will continue.
Voters on Nov. 8 will also choose two commissioners for the 5-member Rent Control Board. Two incumbents and a third candidate with ties to the real estate industry are competing in that race.
The city’s principal political faction, the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, is running a 4-candidate slate for council. Even with only three victories, the faction would retake the council majority for the first time in four years.
The best-known candidates are probably the two incumbents: Dennis Zane, who heads the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights slate, and Herb Katz.
Joining Zane on the slate are Judy Abdo, Ken Genser and Paul Rosenstein; rounding out the field are Donna Alvarez, William Zev Spiegel, Richard Orton, David Ganezer, Sharon Griffin, Ron Rocco, Wayne Black and Thomas Routson.
Zane, a 7-year veteran of the City Council and founder of the tenant faction, says he deserves voters’ support because his record reflects a consistent concern for limiting the size and scope of new construction in the city.
Cap on Square Footage
The 40-year-old teacher proposed many of the downzoning measures in a new comprehensive zoning ordinance that will significantly scale down future building. He also proposes putting annual caps on the amount of square footage that can be constructed.
“I have been the strongest slow-growth voice on the council,” he said.
Zane cites his role in revitalizing the downtown area around the former Third Street Mall as an example of “creative leadership.” And, as one of the original proponents of rent control, Zane pledged to enlist the council’s support in protecting tenants’ security.
Zane’s partners on the slate were chosen at a convention in August that exposed divisions within the organization over how hard-line an approach should be taken on development and other issues, but which finally saw the more moderate wing of the faction come out on top.
Opponents say the tenant slate’s efforts to take all four seats show an uncompromising determination to dominate city government. But backers of the slate say Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has evolved into a mature organization, willing to negotiate, talk and listen.
Zane, whose supporters predict will be the next mayor of Santa Monica, praised the slate.
“These are people who will hit the ground running,” Zane said. “They’ve been shadowing the government for years.”
Katz, first elected to the council in 1984 as part of a ticket sponsored by the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition, says people should vote for him to maintain a mix on the council.
“I don’t believe one single slate, of any kind, should take over the council,” Katz, 57, said.
The All Santa Monica Coalition disbanded and is not formally supporting a slate this year, though many of the same members are working in Katz’s campaign.
As an architect, Katz has used some of his technical experience in examining development projects.
His opponents criticize him for votes in favor of a couple of large projects, such as the Water Garden office-retail complex. But Katz said he has approved what he calls “good development"--projects that return benefits to the city, such as millions of dollars in traffic mitigation fees and for parks.
Katz, who also voted in favor of the downzoning measures, said some new development is inevitable, but he pledged to evaluate projects based on whether the traffic they create can be accommodated and kept out of neighborhoods. Some projects, he said, such as a massive office complex proposed for land just south of Santa Monica Airport, will have to be scaled back.
A former planning commissioner, Katz proposed setting up an independent panel to mediate between landlords and tenants as a way to end the rent control wars that have polarized the city for years. Such a forum would protect tenants from unfair evictions while providing incentives for landlords, he said.
Many see Katz’s effort to get reelected as a gutsy campaign to stop the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights slate from sweeping the election.
At the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights convention last August, Abdo and Rosenstein were chosen on a first ballot to join Zane on the ticket, with Genser winning on a second ballot.
Abdo, 45, is a longtime community organizer and former teacher who has lived in the Ocean Park area for 15 years. She is a deputy to West Hollywood Mayor Helen Albert and works at the Church in Ocean Park.
Abdo is famous for attending almost without fail every City Council meeting, regardless of the agenda or length. She has been a part of the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights for six years and is a founder of the Santa Monica Bay Area Lesbian and Gay Alliance.
Abdo stresses her ability to work as a consensus-builder.
“I think what I would bring to the council is a strong willingness to talk to everybody,” she said. “What is needed is not only someone willing to talk and listen but someone who will bring others together to talk to each other.”
She said she would probably urge further downzoning in the city and that tackling traffic would have to be a top priority. Abdo, who founded the Sojourn Shelter for battered women, also attaches importance to social issues, such as the need for child care.
Rosenstein, 46, pointed to his experience as a neighborhood activist to demonstrate how he plans to fight for lower-scale development projects that divert traffic from residential areas, resident-oriented retail services instead of fancy boutiques, street lights and crime-watch programs.
He was a founder and leader of the Mid-City Neighbors association and the Neighborhood Support Center, which for the first time gave community groups a common structure for providing support services.
“Los Angeles County will grow by 1 million people by the year 2000, many who will want to live or visit Santa Monica,” he said. “We need a council that will recognize that and face the problem.”
Rosenstein, an electrician and professional labor consultant, has been a member of the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights steering committee and a founding board member of the Tenant Aid Project. He also worked on a city advisory committee to study traffic problems.
Genser, 37, cites his three years on the Planning Commission as evidence of his efforts to protect neighborhoods from the sewage and traffic burdens of “intrusive development” while preserving local “mom-and-pop” businesses.
Genser, considered by many to be the SMRR candidate who is toughest on development, worked this year to draw up a slow-growth ballot initiative. The effort failed.
Co-chairman of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, Genser is proposing that in addition to currently mandated environmental reviews, building permits be granted based on a project’s ability to handle sewage and to reduce traffic.
“Those are the services that are critically strained right now,” he said. “People are feeling increased traffic, and most of what the current council has approved has not even been built yet. It is going to be far worse than we are even empirically aware of.”
Genser, a youth hostel development coordinator and co-founder of a nonprofit corporation that builds affordable housing, said he would restore “accountability” to the council by listening to residents’ opinions.
“It seems the City Council has forgotten who it was working for,” he said.
After Katz, Zane and the rest of the tenants’ slate, the candidates who have received the most endorsements and raised the most money are Donna Alvarez and William Zev Spiegel. The two have frequently been linked to Katz because of similarities in their positions, though all say they are running independent campaigns.
Alternative to Slate
Alvarez, 52, has been active in the Pico Neighborhood Assn., serves on the board of Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica and is a retired businesswoman who owns and runs a small apartment building.
She said people should vote for her because she offers an alternative to slate politics and a moderate and independent point of view.
“People do not feel that (slate domination) is good government,” she said.
Alvarez pledged to give the new downzoning measures adopted as part of the city’s zoning code a try, adjusting as necessary to protect neighborhoods and the quality of life. She wants more city parks and more money for the schools.
Spiegel also emphasized his role in the election as an independent who is “generally liberal” yet not beholden to one particular group. He said council members should have support from broad segments of the community and from all residents, whether tenants or homeowners.
Like other candidates, he advocates curtailing growth in the city.
“It doesn’t mean I’m against all development; I’m not,” Spiegel, 28, said. “But we have to make certain that the concrete canyons along Wilshire and Olympic (boulevards) stop at the city line, as they do now.”
As past chairman of the city’s Social Services Commission, Spiegel also vowed to work for better youth and seniors programs.
He favors short-term transitional housing for the homeless, programs that get homeless into the mainstream and stepped-up lobbying at the state and county level for additional services for the homeless.
Richard Orton, 41, describes himself as the “real” slow-growth candidate, opposed to what he calls the “unprecedented construction craze” of the last two years.
Orton, manager of a catalogue production company, says he used to belong to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights but quit when he came to believe the organization’s leadership had dropped the ball on controlling development.
He is working to stop a parking structure from being built on Main Street.
“It’s time we turned control of the neighborhood over to the people who live in the neighborhood rather than the developer who wishes to build there,” he said.
David Ganezer, 28, is a lawyer who got into the council race because of anger over a Planning Commission approval of a condominium next to his home.
“I think City Hall has been captured by the developers. It’s time to take it back,” he said.
He said the city should consider projects in the context of the neighborhoods they affect, rather than looking at objective criteria of maximum heights and densities.
Sharon Griffin, 32, a counselor for problem junior high school students, said she is “proud” to be considered a single-issue candidate.
Her issue is the homeless. She proposes job-training and drug rehabilitation programs, temporary shelters and re-institutionalization for the homeless.
“When I see a human being living like an animal, his skin weathered, in danger of hurting himself, that upsets me,” she said. “That’s why I became involved with the issue, and I think everyone in the city feels it’s an issue.”
Ron Rocco, a single parent and real estate broker, said the city spends too much time and energy fighting over rent control, while neglecting more pressing issues such as overdevelopment and crime.
“I can’t take my kid to the beach, or to the park,” he said.
Rocco, 35, believes development should be controlled by planning, not downzoning.
Wayne Black, 29, is an attorney who is running to challenge the slate system.
He advocates more police patrols in crime-infested areas, more affordable housing instead of big development projects, and more protections for tenants, whose rights, he maintains, have been diminished.
“We must protect ourselves from overzealous developers, planners and greedy politicians,” he said. “I want to keep Santa Monica peaceful and beautiful.”
Thomas Routson, 28, is a Santa Monica native who works as a night manager at a hotel. A back injury has curtailed much of his campaigning, he says.
Routson is most concerned with pollution in the Santa Monica Bay, something he knows first-hand as a surfer.
He also supports mass transit and wants more police.