Ballot Box Rebellion
Armen Melkonians asks Santa Monica voters to put the brakes on new development
By Gary Walker
Whoever said you can’t fight city hall hadn’t met residocracy.org founder Armen Melkonians.
Through his staunchly anti-development online civic engagement platform, Melkonians — a relative newcomer to Santa Monica — pulled off an unprecedented political upset in 2014: killing the Hines Project.
At 765,000 square feet, the planned mixed-use development near Bergamot Station had been narrowly vetted by city council members after years of debate. In just a few months, Melkonians and his Residocracy allies collected more than 13,000 signatures to qualify a ballot referendum against the project, and council members quickly rescinded their approval to avoid what one described as “bloodletting” at the ballot box.
Melkonians is back at it with Measure LV, an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that would require a majority of Santa Monica voters to approve nearly all multi-family residential or commercial development projects that would exceed a height of 32 feet.
“Measure LV draws a line in the sand. It asks who’s on the side of the residents and who’s on the side of the special interests,” Melkonians said. “I see this as a movement of residents rebelling against the establishment and an attempt to get them to listen to the people.”
Others see Measure LV as an extreme and reckless plan that would stifle economic growth and cement housing scarcity for years to come.
“I disagree with the idea of ballot box planning — especially in Santa Monica, given the tough choices that people on all sides have had to make regarding development and slow growth for the last 20 years,” said Frank Gruber, a former city housing and planning commissioner who’s lived in Santa Monica for 33 years.
Measure LV would exempt projects that are 100% affordable housing or 100% senior housing, but critics counter that gutting opportunities for market-rate housing would eliminate the feasibility of most affordable housing, and that LV fails to ensure that senior housing would be affordable.
Two local political action committees — the Santa Monica Forward Issues Committee and HOME (Housing Opportunity for a Modern Economy) Santa Monica — had already spent nearly $1 million to oppose Measure LV as of Oct. 18.
By comparison, Measure LV proponents had raised less than $60,000 for the cause, forcing a scrappy campaign of DIY phone-banking and public tabling.
The hands-on approach has led to some angry confrontations between Measure LV backers and opponents, including an Oct. 8 clash wbetween supporters and a council incumbent at Clover Park.
Residocracy’s hardline outsider approach has prompted comparisons to the establishment-bashing supporters of the Tea Party and Republican Donald Trump, which Melkonians resents.
“That’s been their tactic during the campaign,” he said. “The furthest that you can get from Donald Trump is Santa Monica. They’re just trying to vilify the movement,” he said.
Melkonians and his supporters face a goliath coalition of elected officials, community activists, environmental organizations, developers and real estate investors working to defeat Measure LV.
The city’s public safety unions, the Santa Monica Police Officers Association and the Santa Monica Firefighters Local 1109, are also actively opposing Measure LV.
“Measure LV is too extreme for the city and sets arbitrarily low height limits citywide, which would result in the need for elections for even sorely needed, reasonable developments,” the unions said in a joint statement.
Between 1,300 and 1,700 properties have residential uses that Measure LV would not exempt from voter approval, according to the unions, which also site public safety concerns in the event of a major earthquake.
“Delaying reconstruction of buildings after any large-scale disaster not only negatively affects the residents who live in the buildings but hinders public safety for all of Santa Monica, as uninhabited structures are magnets for squatters and other criminal behavior,” the statement reads.
Melkonians says he’s tracked visits to residocracy.org from as far away as Texas and China.
“It tells me that the financial interests here and overseas are interested. And it tells me that we’re on to something,” he said. “I feel very confident that Measure LV will pass, even though we have over a $1 million being spent against us.”
In addition to writing and backing Measure LV, Melkonians is also one of 10 candidates running for four Santa Monica City Council seats up for grabs on Nov. 8. He describes the measure and his council candidacy as inexorably linked, which could either work for or against him.
“I think it’s impossible to separate the two. Some of Measure LV’s opponents think there is some kind of conflict, but I disagree,” Melkonians said. However, “My biggest success would be the passage of Measure LV. A secondary success would be if I were elected to the City Council.”
Melkonians traces his rise from political observer to organizer back to some of Santa Monica’s most controversial land-use votes in recent memory.
BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT
Melkonians said he did not consider himself a “political” person when he moved from West Los Angeles to Santa Monica in 2010, but after attending a few city council meetings, he began to feel that city leaders’ rhetoric on development did not square with their collective actions.
“They didn’t seem genuine. Their discussions didn’t match their votes. They would say one thing and then vote another way,” Melkonians said during a lunchtime interview last week at Fast Taco restaurant on Ocean Park Boulevard.
Then he started reading environmental impact reports and development agreements, and he did not like what he saw.
The last straws for Melkonians were the council’s approval of the Hines Project — “just too big and dense,” he said — and decision to relocate residents of the Village Trailer Park on Colorado Avenue for construction of high-end housing.
“Village Trailer Park was a big turning point. The only thing that I regret was that we didn’t have the concept of Residocracy yet so we could have stopped that project,” Melkonians said.
“That democratic bug in me began to get angrier and angrier, wanting them to do the right thing. Policy of the council should reflect the will of the residents, not the special interests,” he said. “So that’s when I created Residocracy.”
Soon after, he said, “I sensed there were people who saw things the way I did, and that was encouraging.”
THE CASE FOR LV
Measure LV’s highest-profile supporter is AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein. Weinstein is funding the Neighborhood Integrity Act, a Los Angeles city initiative on the March 2017 ballot that would place a two-year moratorium on major developments and revamp city planning policies to favor lower-density development and slow growth.
“We took a look at the incredible impact on fairly unrestrained development In Santa Monica. It’s unfortunate that it had to go all the way to the ballot,” Neighborhood Integrity Act campaign director Jill Stewart said. “It seems like the developers are still prevailing in many areas.”
Santa Monica resident Thomas Epley has witnessed the changes in traffic and congestion over the last 15 years, and like many others he’s grown weary of it.
“There are times that it takes almost an hour just to go down Ocean Avenue during afternoon rush hour,” he said.
Epley is supporting Measure LV because city officials “have refused to consider engineering methods that can help mitigate traffic. And the city council has continued to promote development that is incompatible with our city,” he said. “There’s only one way to stop it and that’s [Measure LV].”
Sunset Park resident Zina Josephs said the time has come to put the brakes on runaway development.
“When Measure LV passes, after large development projects go through the regular approval process, they will also require voter approval. Similar measures adopted in other cities have slowed down the development feeding frenzy. That’s what we want: to preserve the character of our beautiful beach city,” Josephs said.
The slow-growth Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City recently endorsed Melkonians and Measure LV.
The coalition “predicted this out-of-control development would happen. And what we’re seeing now is sort of like an ‘Arab Spring.’ Now we’re actually seeing it happen,” Melkonians said.
THE CASE AGAINST LV
Measure LV is too extreme and full of unintended consequences, said Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown — himself a longtime slow-growth advocate.
McKeown takes issue with a project height limit of just 32 feet triggering a vote — especially downtown, where city leaders have planned for a denser but automobile-free landscape in coming years — and also warns that developers would be able to exploit loose language in Measure LV.
“Ironically, one loophole would have let the Hines project that helped start this mess go forward by right, without a vote of residents,” McKeown said.
Santa Monica Forward Issues Committee NO on LV campaign spokesman Jason Islas argues that the ballot measure is just too risky.
“It trumps the city’s ‘right to rebuild’ clause. It’s a completely absurd risk. Why run the risk of voters not approving these kinds of projects? … I think it’s irresponsible to subject the city’s public safety to these kinds of risks,” Islas said.
Both he and McKeown point to the city’s approval of a new fire station that will be at least 40 feet tall.
“If Measure LV passes, it could require waiting up to two years for an election [to approve] the critically needed new fire station downtown, just because it’s over 32 feet,” McKeown said.
Melkonians countered that the fire station is already approved, and thus would be grandfathered in if Measure LV passes.
Islas takes issue with Measure LV supporters’ contention that it will improve traffic rather than simply lock in the status quo.
“It’s disingenuous and dishonest to claim that stopping development would make a dent in the traffic situation. It claims to do things that it really doesn’t,” he said.
McKeown said there are smarter alternatives to Measure LV that won’t throw decades of planning and public engagement out the window.
“Putting development agreements to a popular vote, in contrast, would restrain overdevelopment while honoring the decade-plus of community participation in shaping our zoning code — allowing reasonable housing, and avoiding obstacles to post-disaster reconstruction,” he said.
Melkonians dismisses his critics as being part of the city’s political class, noting how much money is being spent to defeat his measure.
“Look at where the money is coming from and from whom,” he said.
Gruber counters that spending by real estate interests is simply logical self-preservation, and that spending shouldn’t cast a shadow over the motivations of city leaders opposed to Measure LV for other reasons.
“LV would put these [development] companies out of business,” Gruber said.
“And we saw with the airport measure that spending money on elections in Santa Monica does not always buy you a win,” Gruber added, referring to a losing 2014 ballot initiative to keep Santa Monica Airport open that received more than $500,000 in backing.
Less than two weeks from Election Day, Melkonians said he doesn’t think there will be many projects that will need approval by residents if his initiative is successful.
“Developers are going to go to another city where they can buy other city councils,” he said with a laugh.
Melkonians acknowledged that there have been contentious confrontations between supporters and opponents of Measure LV, but given its potential to reshape city planning he isn’t surprised.
Islas said he sees the Measure LV campaign as less of a rebellion against Santa Monica City Hall than a local symptom of the kind of political vitriol breeding nationally.
“I see this as a real threat to our city. This has hit new levels of contention, and I think it is reflective of the national [political] debate,” he said. “It’s very poisonous, this all-or-nothing kind of politics. Measure LV proponents are being harassed, and if we can’t disagree civilly there will be lasting consequences.”
Win or lose, Melkonians said the campaign has been worth every long day and night spent in meetings, planning campaign strategy and keeping his supporters engaged.
“There’ve been a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Nov. 9, when I can get a good night’s sleep.”