Does LUVE hurt or help Santa Monica?

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Downtown Santa Monica is being transformed into a dense, walkable community of mixed-use buildings attractive to young and old. But citizens living outside the urban core are angered by what they see as over-development and traffic congestion and are fighting to limit downtown’s growth.

From left: Amy Utani, Gary Llewellyn , Sherri Mattingly, and Ida Riley live in Santa Monica Christian Towers, a 13 story residential building for seniors that provides a walkable lifestyle in downtown Santa Monica (photo by Frances Anderton)
From left: Amy Utani, Gary Llewellyn , Shari Mattingly and Ida Reilly live in Santa Monica Christian Towers, a 13-story, affordable community for seniors. Hear them talk about the downtown lifestyle on DnA (photo by Frances Anderton).

From Santa Monica to Boyle Heights, locals are fighting development. Are their concerns connected?

And is slowing growth the answer to maintaining affordable housing in the most and the least affluent communities in the region?

These were questions posed on this DnA, as Santa Monica voters consider a slow-growth measure on the November ballot, and residents in Boyle Heights fight to stop “art washing,” gentrification and displacement from rent stabilized homes.

Read all about the Boyle Heights struggle here; and read on for more on the LUVE initiative below.

Downtown Santa Monica is being transformed from a Central Business District accessed by the car into a dense, walkable community of 3-7 story, mixed-use buildings attractive to young and older city dwellers (such as residents of Santa Monica Christian Towers on 6th Street at Arizona, above).

But many Santa Monica residents who live outside the urban core are angered by what they see as its over-development and traffic congestion. Frustrations came to a head over three large projects slated for construction on Ocean Avenue: the expansion of Fairmont Miramar Hotel, and mixed hotel, commercial and housing projects designed by Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.

“Each of them is unique,” Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole tells DnA, “but in combination they scared the pants off residents as a symbol of the ‘Manhattanization’ of the city in the future.” The projects were also seen as the result of opaque negotiations. “Our city council never can say no to a deal offered by developers,” says activist Tricia Crane.

A project designed by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture add fuel to the flames of frustration at traffic and development in downtown Santa Monica
A project designed by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture add fuel to the flames of frustration at traffic and development in downtown Santa Monica.

In a bid to slow growth in downtown Santa Monica, Crane and Armen Melkonians, founder of a group called Residocracy, have garnered the votes to put an initiative on the November ballot called LV, also known as LUVE, which stands for “Land Use Voter Empowerment.”

Melkonians states that Measure LV “gives voters a chance to decide how much development is right for Santa Monica.” It would set a limit on downtown buildings and give voters the right to say yes or no to downtown projects that exceed “our by-right limit of 32 feet.”

Jason Islas, Outreach Director for advocacy group Santa Monica Forward, tells DnA that LV is “an extreme measure that would have a lot of unintended consequences” for the city, the main one being further pressure on an already very limited housing supply and a further hollowing out of the middle class in a city that long prided itself on economic diversity.

In his view, developers who are pressured out of downtown will go into the older residential neighborhoods, buy rent-controlled, multifamily buildings and use the Ellis Act to get rid of tenants and build pricey condos.

Melkonians says that is already happening, and points to exceptions in LV for affordable housing construction. Islas says the only way to achieve affordable housing in pricey Santa Monica is through negotiating “community benefits” with developers of market-rate projects whereby a percentage of residences are affordable.

Related Companies developed the Waverly condominiums alongside the affordable Belmar apartments.
In “The Village” Related Companies developed the Waverly condominiums alongside the affordable Belmar apartments (photo courtesy Moore Ruble Yudell.)

Both sides agree on the importance of maintaining housing for the less affluent but are divided on how to achieve it — whether through stimulating growth or slowing it.

The LUVE founders come fresh off a battle to stop the Hines project, a large, dense complex of commercial space and market-rate and affordable dwellings slated to be built at Bergamot Station. To supporters of this project, it symbolized a more sustainable future Santa Monica where workers can live at a close distance from the workplace or a transit line. To opponents it represented 7000 unwanted car trips into the city.

Slowing growth, however, raises a question: where, in a booming Southland, can incoming as well as current Santa Monica workers find an affordable place to live? To the LV folks, the answer is simple: they can move, says Melkonians, “elsewhere” and use the Expo line to ride into the city.

But where is elsewhere? It is other, less pricey neighborhoods, where residents are also concerned about losing their rent-stabilized homes (read this story about the fight against “artwashing” and gentrification in Boyle Heights.)

Carl Hansen, government affairs director for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, points out that the L.A. region projects four million additional people coming into the area in the next 20 years. “They have to live somewhere. And what you have to ask yourself is where do you want them to be. No is not an answer. No is just pushing the problem somewhere else.”

Measure LV is being watched around the Southland, especially in Los Angeles where the Coalition to Preserve LA has gathered the signatures to place the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the ballot next March. NII wants to slow high-density developments of mostly market-rate or luxury housing that the group says result from a corrupt system of “spot zoning.”

A New York Citi Bike enjoys a California sunset; photo courtesy Jeffrey Tanenhaus.
A New York Citi Bike at Santa Monica beach; photo courtesy Jeffrey Tanenhaus.

The campaign has been funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is also helping fund Measure LV.

Rick Cole, City Manager for Santa Monica, says that while the Santa Monica and Los Angeles have “different planning regimes” they both suffer from the same problem: “a lack of transparent planning.”

The real problem, he tells DnA, is not “the size, the scale or the mix of uses in projects. The real problem is that we don’t have good planning that guarantees upfront what the public wants and will put up with.”

Listen to this DnA (also above) to hear the full conversation with Rick Cole, Armen Melkonians, Tricia Crane, Jason Islas and Carl Hansen as well as Ron Goldman, Amy Utani, Gary Llewellyn , Shari Mattingly, Ida Reilly, Elena Christopoulos, Brian Derro and Jeremy Stutes.