Uncontrolled growth cannot be sustained
by Mike Feinstein & John Bodin
Opinion piece for the Santa Monica Outlook
September 12, 1994
The California legislature will likely pass a bill this year fundamentally changing the permit procedure for large scale development. For the first time, large developments will be approved only after a source of water is identified to serve them. Aimed at new suburban tract housing, this change will embody a reality painfully obvious in Santa Monica and across California - that uncontrolled growth cannot be sustained. Development is "hitting the wall" of our infrastructure capacity, bringing escalating taxpayer cost and decreasing social and environmental conditions. This is understood in Santa Monica neighborhoods, but apparently not in City Hall. There, planning remains the province of a governmental/private elite that utilizes official methodology and "public process" to favor developers at community expense. How?
Developers and City planners often use "bait and switch" tactics - they propose severely exagerated development, then, after residents' desperate pleas, agree to accept less "for the good of the community". Next come the perfunctory architects, bankers and contractors who testify before the Council and Planning Commission that Santa Monica "really needs" the proposed development and will never find another developer so willing to make "concessions". Project approved, residents screwed.
A real life example? In 1989, the City Manager picked a stacked "Community Advisory Task Force" to oversee public input into the Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP). In 1993, after four years of fighting to adopt the least dense of three development options, neighborhood representatives were overruled in a "compromise alternative" decided by a series of 8-7 votes. The minority in every vote included six of the seven neighborhood representatives. Yet the "public process" was deemed served and the massive development standards approved.
Such cynical attempts to paint a false public "consensus" are not uncommon. Consider the last four proposed large-scale public developments: an Office Park redevelopment of Santa Monica airport parkland, a Luxury Hotel on North Beach parkland, the imminent "Fun Zone" amusement park on the Pier and the recently adopted CCSP. In each case the City promised "public process" to address neighborhood concerns. Yet of the four projects, three faced such strong city-wide opposition they became subjects of successfully qualified referendums, with two actually going to the ballot. Once there, real politics takes over - money talks. With the McCarty beach hotel, residents were outspent 15:1, but still had access to enough funds to mount a credible city-wide direct mail campaign. The result? A 60%-40% defeat of the proposed hotel. With the Civic Center, residents had access to only a few thousand dollars, not enough for one city-wide mailing. RAND, the proponent, spent a quarter million dollars. The result? A 60%-40% victory for RAND.
Despite this enourmous inequity, 40% of voters were still not convinced. This demonstrates a solid segment of our community is deeply opposed to the City's development policies. It also suggests the "consensus" achieved by official public process is a farce, the City's political culture is unsustainable and its attempt to ignore slow-growth residents a political time-bomb...Some improvements:
* Elect City Councilmembers who'll really control development, not just talk about it. We must elect Councilmembers who stand for resident-serving, environmentally-sound development, then hold them accountable. (It's no coincidence that in the same year SMRR slow-growth activists are unhappy about the Civic Center, a SMRR incumbent has for the first time not received the SMRR conventions's endorsement.)
* Change our method of electing public officials. We must move from our at-large election system, which rewards image over substance, to proportional representation, which promotes inclusivity and accountability.
* Reevaluate the City Manager's office. Given its influence in development planning and its simultaneous insulation from public accountability, it may be time for a charter amendment making the City Manager an elected, not appointed position.
* Shift planning power to residents and the neighborhoods. Changes in elected officials can only go so far because of the unrepresentative nature of "representative democracy" itself. Our nation was founded on direct, town hall democracy. More than 200 years later, Santa Monicans should not have to resort to referendum just to be heard. Official planning process must change so residents and neighborhoods become upfront, proactive participants.
* More coordination amongst neighborhood groups. Santa Monica has active, influential neighborhood organizations, but there has been little coordination between them on issues of city-wide impact. Development of an inter-organizational "Community Review Forum" is underway and hopefully will result in improved action and effect.
* Reevaluation of the role/responsibility of City Staff. Staff's role is to serve, not make policy. Too often, its work is presented at the last minute before Council and Planning Commission meetings, effectively excluding informed, meaningful public participation, and rendering City officials unhealthily dependent on its analysis and recommendations. Staff reports must be circulated far in advance to residents, neighborhood groups and public officials, allowing time to digest, organize, and affect policy.
* Better use of media. Information is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. Other than City Council and Planning Commission meetings and an occasional call-in talkshow, City TV doesn't present crucial city policy-making processes. For instance, the precious few community meetings held on the Civic Center could have been recorded and televised. PEN must also be revitalized in this vein.
* An enforceable Sustainable City Program. Santa Monica's Environmental Task Force will present their Sustainable City Program (SCP) to the City Council next month. Although the SCP aims at environmental stewardship, it lacks real mechanisms for implementation and enforcement. Unless this is rectified, the SCP will be manipulated to "green wash" future reckless development.
* Respect for Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). Too often the Planning Commission and City Council "override" legitimate EIR findings about the negative community impacts of pending development. This is justified by a Babbit Boosterism which intentionally confuses "business interests" with "civic good". A healthy community must balance the diverse needs of all its members. EIRs must be properly executed and heeded.
Can all this occur? Of course. The knowledge is there, we simply need a process that puts people and environment first. To bring that about, we must all take responsibility.
Feinstein and Bodin are members of Citizens for a Better Civic Center, the Ocean Park Community Organization Board of Directors and the Los Angeles County Green Party County Council.
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