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A RIFT in Santa Monica
Opposing initiatives to fight traffic divide the city

To understand the severity of Santa Monica’s traffic problems, visualize this: Of the beachside city’s 85,000 citizens, only about 10,000 people both live and work there, which means that 60,000 people arrive daily from other parts of Los Angeles to fill its 70,000 jobs. That’s about 150,000 people coming and going every weekday, all of whom seem to be lined up along Cloverfield Boulevard at 5:30 in the afternoon.

It was this mounting frustration that earlier this year led a group of citizens organized by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) to propose the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), a 15-year measure which would cap commercial development at 75,000 square feet annually in an effort to curb traffic. In August, RIFT received more than twice the 5,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot. In November citizens will be voting on the referendum, now known as Proposition T. An opposing group, Save Our City, which includes citizens, politicians, and about 60 local architects, supports an existing document—the city general plan’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE)— which calls for smart growth over limited growth and more nuanced solutions for combatting the crippling traffic.

“Rift” could also describe the breach between Santa Monica’s residents and politicians, who are deeply divided over various solutions to traffic and development. After decades of enthusiastic growth, Santa Monica is a victim of its own success. High-rise luxury hotels and high-end retail line the once-decrepit coastline. And Santa Monica’s uniquely dense, walkable community has made it one of the most desirable places in the Los Angeles area for companies to locate, luring headquarters for mega-companies like Sony, Yahoo!, and MTV. But want to leave in time for dinner in Silver Lake? Forget it.

If implemented, Proposition T would amend LUCE in hopes to stop some of those drivers from having a reason to come into the city. The 75,000-square-foot cap would last until 2023 and would not include uses like residential, parking, schools, or hospitals. Proposition T also makes allowances for ground floor “neighborhood-serving goods, services, or retail uses” in mixed-use developments where 100 percent of the housing is affordable. According to supporter, rent control board member and planning commissioner Jay P. Johnson, RIFT pre-empts what will be almost certain future battles over city development policies, which he called “undefined” when it comes to height and density. “My experience tells me that as key crossroads of decision making are passed, the collective ability to ‘go back’ or reverse course is highly unlikely, since many big money stakeholders exert their influence, privately and publicly, to maintain the direction,” he said.

“To say we can stop traffic and do it by stopping development sounds fantastic, but the devil is in the details,” said Gwynne Pugh, principal of Santa Monica firm Pugh + Scarpa and one of the key organizers of Save Our City. In his role as chair of the city’s planning commission, Pugh points to LUCE (a document he helped research and draft), which he said would address many of these same traffic issues but in a more comprehensive way. LUCE’s plan calls for mixed-used projects and dense transit centers in hopes of creating more “complete” neighborhoods that will discourage residents from using their cars. It also includes a focus on affordable and workforce residential development (for young professionals making around $70,000 a year) to house more Santa Monica residents closer to jobs and services. In addition, the plan will explore many more options for employers like flex hours, biking incentives, and shared parking.

LUCE has already been approved by the city council and planning commission, and is now in the environmental impact report stage. It could be implemented within the next six months, but if the November initiative is approved, Pugh said, “it would be obliterated by RIFT.” In June, Pugh + Scarpa held a fundraiser for Save Our City that was also an educational event for architects. Of prime concern to the group were transit-oriented projects anticipated at places like Bergamot Station, for the expansion of the Expo Line. With the 75,000-square-foot cap, Pugh said the developments won’t be able to achieve the proper mix of high-density residential and commercial floor space, potentially jeopardizing the future of a sorely-needed public transit line, as well as the eventual “Subway to the Sea.”

Making special allotments for public transit projects like the Expo Line activity centers raises questions about how exactly Proposition T will be enforced. It has not yet been decided whether the 75,000 square feet per year would all be alloted at once, and which projects would get precedence, although the measure allows for “borrowing” square footage from future years if necessary. Johnson says the cap simply ensures that projects are carefully thought out and overdevelopment won’t happen. “My choice was too little or too much,” he said. “I chose too little since it can be corrected by increasing the amount in the future. If we go with too much, and are wrong, we cannot correct the error by tearing down buildings.” 

Alissa Walker